WELL, Saddam Hussein didn't give us much time to sit around celebrating the end of the cold war, did he? The events unfolding in the Arabian desert are certainly dramatic. But from the point of view of human survival, the biggest development of 1990 was not Iraq's aggression against Kuwait, but a breakthrough toward real cooperation between the world's two nuclear mega-powers, the Soviet Union and ourselves. That breakthrough means that today, for the first time since 1945, we can begin planning for a world free of nuclear weapons - a goal we can think of reaching within the next 30 to 40 years.
This is a momentous prospect. But I have heard specialists raise two kinds of queries when they think about a nuclear weapons-free globe.
The first concerns whether, on reflection, this is indeed where we want to be. Nuclear weapons may be horrific, these questioners admit, but they provided a deterrent that kept the peace between the world's most powerful states for the past 45 years. Absent nuclear weapons, they ask, how could we keep the peace between the world's fractious nations?
If we work toward a nuclear-free world, we will have to make sure other mechanisms are in place to solve problems between nations without armed conflict.
Surely it is not beyond the abilities of a species that has designed instruments of awesome destructiveness to turn that same imagination to the design of diplomatic instruments that can resolve conflicts through peaceful means? We already have, in the present United Nations, many seeds of one such instrument.
The second query that thoughtful people raise when they think about a nuclear-free world is: How do we get from here to there? At present, five of the world's 167 states have declared they have nuclear weapons. Of these, the United States and the Soviets each have some 10,000 nuclear warheads atop long-range missiles, and tens of thousands of other nuclear weapons deliverable by other means. Britain, France, and China all have much smaller declared nuclear inventories.
Three other nuclear-capable states have never publicly declared themselves as such. Of these, Israel is thought to possess some 50 to 100 nuclear warheads that are ready or nearly ready to use. India and Pakistan are each thought to have, or to be able to assemble, fewer than a dozen primitive nuclear weapons.
Two other states are thought to be working to acquire a clandestine nuclear capability. Iraq is one of these; North Korea is the other. Analysts of non-proliferation affairs judge that both are 5 to 10 years away from having the capability they seek.
This lopsided profile of nuclear weapons ownership means that two linked approaches are needed to draw the world's total of nuclear weapons down to zero without increasing global instability. The two mega-powers need to negotiate the massive draw-down of their own vast arsenals, bringing the three other ``declared'' weapons states into the process along the way. Meanwhile, we need to make sure that the smaller, undeclared arsenals do not grow, and that no additional states join the ``club.''
Both these endeavors are already underway. The nuclear mega-powers have been engaged in bilateral arms-reduction talks for several years now. In 1991, they will complete the watershed elimination of a whole class of nuclear missiles - those having intermediate range.
Efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states have also shown some success. The conclusion of the worldwide Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 was the great landmark in this regard.
Today, 139 states are members of the NPT. The two ``declared'' weapons states that remain outside it, France and China, have stated that they will nonetheless abide by its main provisions. Brazil and Argentina announced an agreement to allow each other to inspect previously suspect nuclear facilities, and South Africa has expressed interest in joining the NPT. Today, only Israel, India, and Pakistan have nuclear-weapons capabilities that remain outside its provisions.
So as we enter the post-cold war era, we already have many of the diplomatic instruments and processes that can help move us to a stable, nuclear-free world by 2030. But we're not totally on track for it yet. Developments in the Gulf crisis will be crucial. Will they end up strengthening the cooperative approach to world security outlined above, or weakening it? Our children, and children yet unborn, will deliver the final verdict on that.