WHEN Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed this month in Moscow to retarget their nuclear arsenals away from each other, many who lived through the cold war might have felt some minor amazement. Yet the missiles can be redirected in minutes. What truly bears second thought is that after 40-plus years of standoff between nuclear powers that could have destroyed the planet if they chose, neither side ever launched or used such weapons.
Many of the best thinkers and scientists, including Albert Einstein, who witnessed the insanity of 1914, 1940, the Holocaust, and then the mushroom clouds over two Japanese cities that ended World War II, felt that modern science had so far outstripped humans' moral and spiritual maturity that the use of such powerful weapons would be an impossible temptation to resist. ``I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,'' Robert Oppenheimer said as he watched the first atomic bomb erupt over a New Mexico desert. Indeed, the world came to the nuclear brink several times: for example, against China during the Korean War under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and during the Cuban missile crisis.
In the 1980s, Jonathan Schell's ``The Fate of the Earth'' painted stark pictures of nuclear holocaust. The open discussions in the 1980s about fighting and winning a nuclear war also drove home the realization that US-Soviet mutually assured destruction was a suicidal policy and that something beyond MAD was needed. Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin signed almost any arms control and reduction agreement put in front of them. The liberation of Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany was followed by a collapse of the Soviet empire.
Since then, a strong popular assumption has grown in the West that nuclear dangers are past. The assumption is mistaken. Splitting the atom was part of a scientific and technical harnessing of power that began an unprecedented acceleration in the late 19th century. The demise of the superpower standoff and its familiar disciplines opens new dangers. The moral imperative for reducing them is no less than that for avoiding a US-Soviet nuclear exchange.
Currently there are some 2,000 ex-Soviet scientists who know how to build a bomb from start to finish. Thousands more can handle part of the job. Under Soviet rules, the arts of enriching and reprocessing - the operations that turn uranium and plutonium into weapons-grade material - were a closely guarded secret. No longer, according to American and European intelligence agencies.
Perversely, superpower arms reductions may make the nuclear option more attractive for small powers, particularly if they feel that large powers are less interested in taking responsibility for how the problems of small countries or regions are managed.
The breakup of the bipolar world also could, over time, drive larger powers to build nuclear weapons. Germany and Japan could easily construct a bomb; should the situation in Eastern Europe worsen, or should North Korea further advance its nuclear program, internal arguments in Bonn or Tokyo to do so may begin.
The worth of treaties and negotiations is being tested. US intelligence officials report that North Korea already has produced at least one nuclear device. That makes it the first Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory to cross the treaty line. If North Korea stays in the NPT, the NPT is compromised. If North Korea is kicked out, what compunction will it feel to limit proliferation?
Nor is possession alone a concern. President Clinton's policy review on nuclear proliferation released at the UN in September is correct: Nuclear terrorism is the most significant danger. Currently, Russian and Ukrainian stockpiles are under tight control. But instability and the need for cash could change that. Moreover, the World Trade Center bombing hints at the possible use of ``dirty'' radioactive material, or nuclear waste, in a bomb, or even pumped into an air conditioning system, with terrible result. Nuclear terror in the US would likely be followed by a huge public outcry to act. The result could be a state security apparatus the size and intrusiveness of which America has avoided.
Some experts say weapons-grade material won't proliferate since a buyer could use it against a seller. Yet acts of crime are not always rational. Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia might use nuclear weapons, if he had them. The possibility of irrational use is made clearer by the rise in Russia of Vladimir Zhirinovsky; his asserted willingness to use a weapon of mass destruction, even if the weapon he named - the elipton - strains credulity, is instructive. Soviet submarines are now Russian submarines. In a Russian-Ukrainian conflict, might tactical nuclear weapons be used?
More attention must be paid to US foreign policy. Problems of nationalism, sovereignty, and ethnic hatred could trigger nuclear use. Ensuring that such weapons aren't used is an issue of survival, progress, and love for coming generations.