THREE events in 1991 have heightened international concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons: the breakup of the Soviet Union and resulting uncertainty regarding the control of such weapons, the United Nations discoveries of hidden atomic development in Iraq, and revelations of nuclear progress in North Korea.In the face of these events, the pronounced objective of United States non-proliferation policy is to keep nuclear weapons out of "the wrong hands." The policy is seriously handicapped, howe ver, because not everyone agrees on whose are the "wrong" hands.
At least 12 nations besides the US have sought the capacity to produce nuclear devices: the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, China, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Israel, and North Korea. They have been motivated either by a desire for national prestige or by the wish to gain advantage over or deter a potential enemy - or by both. Britain and France did not believe they could be effective voices in the alliance of nations without being in "the nuclear club." The Soviet U nion had global ambitions, but also fears of possible US intentions. China feared the Soviet development. India wished to match China's strength. Pakistan felt the need to deter India. Iraq's objective was leadership in the Arab world. Hopes of dominance in the southern cone of Latin America spurred both Argentina and Brazil. Israel and South Africa, beset by surrounding enemies, saw the weapon as their ultimate chance for survival. North Korea was both ambitious and feared the US presence in South Korea.
In the new Commonwealth of Independent States, the separate republics, especially Ukraine, are leery of giving Russia a monopoly.
In such a web of conflicting motives, any effort to distinguish "wrong" from "right" or "irresponsible" from "responsible" nations faces major obstacles. No nation is prepared to admit, from its perspective, that it represents the wrong hands.
As long as the US does little to oppose existing programs such as that in China, India is not likely to deny its own right to nuclear arms. Similarly, Arab states, even though they may decry Saddam Hussein's intentions, are unlikely to support a ban on nuclear development in an Arab state so long as the US remains silent about Israel's atomic arsenal.
Steps toward non-proliferation have been taken, but most effectively in those cases in which nations are prepared to renounce such weapons altogether. This has happened in the southern cone of Latin America in which newly elected democratic presidents in both Argentina and Brazil have renounced previous programs. But such decisions arise only when others in close proximity who may represent potential threats take similar pledges.
South Korea has announced that it is free of nuclear weapons, leading the way for North Korea to admit and open its program for inspection. The statement by Seoul could not have been made without the acquiescence of the US which has in the past opposed such declarations.
In the final analysis, effective non-proliferation will depend on the US. This nation is not likely to totally give up its nuclear arsenal; too many uncertainties exist in the world. With the former Soviet Union, Washington took important steps through arms-control treaties, but it is still reluctant to undertake other measures, such as the cessation of nuclear testing and weapons production.
Neither is Washington prepared to open US facilities to the international inspection it demands of others. Until these policies change, Washington's credibility on the issue will be suspect.
The global spread of nuclear weaponry is limited because of the complexity and cost of the production of devices and delivery systems. That reality, however, will not deter some nations. Such nations, whatever their motives, are not likely to be discouraged as long as other nations proceed and are unwilling to agree to international inspections and safeguards and as long as technology and nuclear experts are present and available.
The nuclear genie may never be put back in the bottle. Proliferation of the technology, however, can be discouraged, but only if nations lose the rationale for possessing such weapons. The US can further this, not by seeking to distinguish "the wrong hands," but by demonstrating that, given the destructive power of the atom, there are ultimately no "right hands."