WITH a crucial negotiating deadline now only months away, the Clinton administration is redoubling its efforts to win permanent status for an international treaty that has long limited the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.
The pact in question - the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - has been a foundation stone of atomic-arms control for a quarter of a century. Few, if any, nations want to tear it up when it comes up for renewal this April.
But some developing countries complain that the NPT enshrines a double standard, with have-nots agreeing to renounce nuclear arsenals while big nations such as the United States and Russia still cling to their bombs. These smaller states favor a temporary NPT renewal, the better to pressure nuclear powers for further arms reductions.
``Right now the US does not have the votes for a permanent extension,'' claims Joseph Cirincione, director of the Washington-based Campaign for the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
US officials worry that if the NPT is not made permanent, its moral force may begin to erode. More nations might quietly cast about for nuclear technology to protect themselves if world strictures against proliferation suddenly fall apart.
``I think we have a reasonable chance to rally permanent extension forces,'' says Ambassador Thomas Graham, the chief US negotiator for the treaty. ``It's not for sure.''
The give and take
When it entered into force in 1970, the Non-Proliferation Treaty was intended as a bulwark against what seemed at the time as the sure, steady spread of nuclear weapons capability.
Under the terms of the NPT bargain, nations that pledged to abjure atomic bombs were allowed access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Nuclear-capable states, for their part, pledged to work toward control and eventual elimination of their arsenals.
Currently, 170 nations have joined or are close to officially joining the pact.
Negotiators from most of these states met in New York last week to prepare the ground for a big renewal conference that is set to begin April 17. Under the NPT's language, in April member states can opt either to renew the treaty indefinitely or to extend it for one period not greater than 25 years.
The United States will need a majority of votes for its position to carry the day. So far, 67 members have pledged support for an indefinite extension, according to a survey conducted by the Campaign for the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Ten have said they are definitely opposed. The bulk of votes thus remain officially undecided.
There are a number of actions the US could take to help swing wavering NPT members its way, according to arms-control experts.
Primary among them would be pushing for more progress on another arms-control pact: the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTB).
Many of the undecided nations say that they would like to see a testing ban in place as evidence of good faith on the part of the declared weapons states. The Clinton administration appears to be attempting to respond to this concern.
On Jan. 30, US officials announced that they were dropping a demand that the US be allowed to easily opt out of a test ban after 10 years, if national security warranted the move. This demand had aroused strong objection even from US allies, and had threatened to derail test-ban negotiations.
``A CTB is an objective whose time has come,'' says Ambassador Graham. ``It appears highly likely that there will be a CTB treaty completed by next year at the latest, perhaps sooner.''
Another step the United States might take to increase its chances involves security pledges. Many nonnuclear states would like an official promise on the part of big powers that they won't use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have such an arsenal.
A United Nations Security Council statement to this effect may be forthcoming, as the US has discussed the subject with Russia, Britain, and other Security Council members.
A final obstacle to NPT permanent status involves a regional dispute in the Middle East. Egypt and a number of other Arab nations indicate that while they support the idea of a nonproliferation ban they will not agree to a permanent extension unless Israel makes some sort of move opening its nuclear weapons program to discussion.
While Israel has never admitted the fact publicly, it is widely believed to possess a nuclear arsenal.
``That's a difficult issue for both sides,'' says Graham. ``I'm hopeful it can be worked out.''