SOMETIME in the near future the National Security Council (NSC) may well be sitting around a table in the White House, looking grim. "What do we do?" someone will ask. "North Korea now has nuclear weapons."
Or perhaps they will be discussing Iraq. Maybe the nuclear proliferator will be Iran, or even Libya.
Whatever the country, it is a day that is likely drawing closer. With increasing concern, United States policymakers and analysts are thinking about what might happen when a third-world nation hostile to the US gets "the bomb."
For one thing, the people around the NSC table would be considering a whole new balance of power in some important region of the world. They might suddenly feel constrained in their ability to exercise US influence.
"That's inevitable," says Thomas Graham, acting director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. "It would certainly compound your difficulties and military options."
This day of reckoning might still be headed off. Since the dawn of the atomic age, experts have been warning that rampant proliferation was nigh. Yet such world measures as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1974 have kept the number of nuclear powers far below predictions of 30 years ago.
The quick United Nations outcry against North Korea's stated decision to withdraw from the treaty shows that the system has teeth, say arms-control advocates. The Security Council is expected to issue a statement soon.
"There's a great deal of international political, moral, and legal pressure on countries not to acquire nuclear weapons," Mr. Graham insists.
Of course, that hasn't stopped a number of nations from mounting clandestine nuclear programs. The extent of Iraq's nuclear progress, as revealed by UN inspectors after the Gulf war, was surprising to many experts. North Korea itself may be close to assembling a bomb.
US military power may be an incentive to proliferation, points out a new RAND Corporation report issued by the nonprofit research and analysis group. The lesson of the Gulf war to third-world leaders may have been: Don't cross Washington unless you have nukes.
Some 230 US officials and defense analysts participated in RAND exercises dealing with regional nuclear proliferation from late 1991 to July 1992. Most favored strengthening the existing nonproliferation regime; few believed that would do more than slow proliferation. War games show hesitancy to intervene
"There is the clear possibility that the United States will face adversaries equipped with nuclear weapons," says the RAND report.
And those weapons will have some deterrent value against the US. War games run by RAND showed that US decisionmakers were ultraconservative when deciding whether to intervene to support US interests against regional nuclear adversaries.
A hostile power wouldn't have to be able to reach the US mainland to achieve this effect. Threatening US allies or targeting US troops or aircraft carriers would likely be enough.
In other words, if Iraq's Saddam Hussein had owned a nuclear-tipped SCUD, there might have been no Desert Storm.
Future options for a US president in a Gulf-like crisis depend on rethinking security strategy now, says Roger Molander, a co-author of the RAND study. "Can we do force projection in a new creative way, that doesn't put tens of thousands of American troops at the risk of nuclear attack?" Mr. Molander asks. RAND suggests the US should develop military forces far better able to locate and destroy an adversary's nuclear weapons and mobile delivery systems. Improved regional ballistic missile defenses could help defend regional allies and, if necessary, US forces. Best US strategy may be containment
Even with such protection, however, the threshold for US involvement in a crisis would be much higher in a region with a hostile nuclear power. "The stakes would have to be very important," says Greg Weaver, a senior military analyst at the SAIC Corporation.
Given the destructive potential of nuclear weapons, the best US strategy in the face of a hostile regional nuclear adversary might be similar to that used against the Soviet Union in the cold war - containment.
Acting through the UN, the international community could isolate a nuclear aggressor economically and diplomatically, while moving in enough conventional forces to block any further conventional expansion.
Such a strategy could take decades to work, according to Michael May, director emeritus of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. But if the policy were well-established "no ultimate gain against a united world could be expected," Mr. May argues in a recent book.