PROLIFERATION of nuclear weapons will be one of the most difficult security problems confronting the Clinton administration. The US-led international nonproliferation system, symbolized by the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is showing signs of serious strain. Ukraine's delay in carrying out its pledge to become a nonnuclear state - and the mounting domestic opposition to that step because it would give Russia a regional nuclear monopoly - is only the most recent indication of trouble.
Instead of ignoring the emerging multipolar nuclear environment, the new administration should initiate a comprehensive reassessment of United States strategy. Three options are available: a "status quo plus" policy, coercive nonproliferation, and adjustment to proliferation.
The status quo-plus approach favors a redoubled diplomatic effort to strengthen the existing nonproliferation regime.
But the NPT is producing increasingly perverse results. Although it has persuaded the Italys, Japans, and South Koreas of the world not to acquire nuclear weapons, it is less and less able to dissuade the Irans, Libyas, and North Koreas from doing so. That, along with Washington's adherence to extended deterrence, commits the US to shielding an assortment of nonnuclear allies from nuclear-armed adversaries.
Some foreign-policy experts, sensing that the old nonproliferation system is breaking down, advocate a new, more coercive form of nonproliferation based on Washington's willingness to launch preemptive military strikes against emerging nuclear-weapons states. Proponents see the "Osirak option" - the Israeli air raid against an Iraqi reactor in 1981 - as the appropriate model.
Using military force to preserve the crumbling nonproliferation system has several serious drawbacks. The most obvious is that the attacked nation might seek revenge. Bombing North Korea's nuclear facilities, for example, could easily trigger a general war on the Korean Peninsula. Even if a target regime did not resort to military action, there would always be the possibility of terrorist reprisals. A coercive strategy might prevent some proliferation, but it would be unlikely to halt the overall trend, and it would create a host of new problems for the US.
Washington should instead adopt a strategy that adjusts to the reality of nuclear proliferation and insulates America from the most harmful consequences. The policy on which that strategy is based must recognize the importance of maintaining a credible deterrent despite the demise of the Soviet adversary. The need for air defenses and at least a "thin layer" anti-ballistic missile system is clear.
A policy of adjustment also requires the exercise of extreme caution about meddling in regional conflicts. The threshold for concluding that a vital US security interest is involved in such disputes should be extremely high. The only thing worse than becoming needlessly entangled in a conflict between belligerents armed with conventional weapons would be to do so when one or more parties have nuclear weapons.
Equally important, the US will need to abandon extended deterrence. Without the threat of global domination posed by a superpower challenger, assuming the risks entailed by extended deterrence is unwarranted. Removing the US nuclear umbrella would, of course, mean that some major allies might decide to acquire independent arsenals. Although that is hardly a pleasant prospect, it is better than the alternative.
Finally, instead of automatically treating nuclear aspirants as international pariahs, the US should seek ways to mitigate the harmful effects of proliferation. An especially worrisome prospect is that many new nuclear states will lack the technical expertise to establish reliable command and control systems or to guard their arsenals from theft or terrorism. Inadequate safeguards greatly increase the danger of an accidental or unauthorized launch.
Washington can help to minimize such problems by disseminating command and control technology and assisting in the creation of crisis management hotlines and other confidence-building measures among emerging nuclear powers. The US can also encourage regional adversaries to engage in strategic dialogues to delineate the kinds of provocations that might cause them to use nuclear weapons and outline the doctrines that would govern their use. A dialogue of the sort that helped to stabilize the dangerous supe rpower rivalry would at least reduce the chances of a nuclear conflict erupting because of miscalculation or misunderstanding.
A policy of adjusting to proliferation is not a panacea, but it is superior to the present policy and the dangerous alternative of coercive nonproliferation. The US cannot halt the spread of nuclear weapons, but it can make adjustments that minimize danger to the American people.