IT is time for the United States to reexamine its policy toward the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The problem is not that nonproliferation has ceased to be desirable; it is that the policy is not working.
More countries have nuclear weapons now - maybe 12 or so, with others on the verge - than ever before. And the list seems certain to grow despite threats, cajolery, and exhortations from Washington.
We certainly do not want to resign ourselves to living in a world where this is happening. So what can we do about it? Look first at where the current policy went astray. It was a product of the cold war, embodied in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that was negotiated in 1968 by the US, the Soviet Union, and Britain - then the principal, but not the only, nuclear powers. Refusing to participate were the French, then under the spell of Gen. Charles de Gaulle's exaggerated sense of sovereignty and nat ional pride, and the Chinese, then under the spell of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution and its associated anti-Soviet phobia.
The idea of the treaty was that nuclear powers would not help other countries acquire nuclear weapons, and other countries would refrain from trying to go nuclear. There was not much in this for the other countries beyond a vague promise of help with nuclear projects designed for peaceful purposes.
This approach has a patronizing air: The superpowers can handle nuclear weapons, but it's dangerous for other countries to have them. Given the international diplomatic climate in the 1960's this treaty was probably the best that could have been expected; but in retrospect, it should not be surprising that the treaty has not worked very well.
Meanwhile, the US became steadily more shrill in its own approach to the problem. Congress decreed various sanctions against countries found developing nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or advanced delivery systems for such weapons. Such countries could not receive foreign aid, nor could export licenses be issued for certain equipment destined for such countries.
This is where the US began to run into the contradictory tradeoffs inherent in a foreign policy with multiple objectives. Did we really want to alienate Pakistan with sanctions over nuclear weapons at the same time we were dependent on Pakistani bases for helping the anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan?
Did we really want to alienate China with sanctions over Chinese export of missile components to Pakistan at the same time we were seeking their assistance in persuading North Korea to admit international nuclear inspectors?
In a good deal of the third world, US nonproliferation policy looks even more patronizing than the 1968 US-Soviet-British treaty.
The way to get out of this impasse is not to keep doing the same things that got us here.
Most countries don't have nuclear weapons and would be more comfortable if their neighbors did not have them. A multilateral approach to nonproliferation might prove effective where big power diplomacy has failed.
In 1946, when the US had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, presidential adviser Bernard Baruch suggested a plan of control through the United Nations, and President Truman endorsed it. It would have put all nuclear facilities under UN control. The plan failed because the Soviet Union blocked it. Maybe it's time to try again.