IN 1995 our nuclear powered world no longer stands at five minutes to midnight, as it did in 1985. With Russian and American missiles no longer targeting each other, and some 170 states agreeing this spring to an indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - we may not even be at five hours to midnight.
This removal of the threat of instant, all-out nuclear war is a relief to individuals, families, and communities everywhere.
The question these days, however, is whether one is looking at the right clock. Recent experience with Iraq and North Korea, both NPT members with secret nuclear programs, shows that previous means of measuring threat are outdated.
The superpower discipline of the cold war has been replaced by shadowy new types of proliferation possibilities - from smuggling fissile materials to nuclear terrorism and acquisition of dual-use nuclear technology. China, for example, according to the Washington-based "Risk Report," is developing an entire new generation of intercontinental and submarine-launched missiles, which may be coveted by nuclear wannabes.
Despite a three-year-old US-Russia sale agreement, 500 tons of Russian weapons-grade uranium from dismantled warheads still sits on site; the two sides can't agree on a purchase price.
Ongoing friction between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and tensions between North and South Korea make these regions dangerous in the nuclear sense.
When it comes to nuclear control, it seems, the world has better treaties - but is enjoying them less.
It is important that the Clinton administration follow through on its diplomatic success in pushing through the NPT extension. As the Dutch foreign policy group "Clingendael" points out, the NPT is not ideal, but it is the only tested structure in a difficult new era. And the US is in the best position to make it count.
The White House should press its fellow nuclear club members to get on with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and resist recent efforts by the Pentagon to actually raise the level of testing.
Two areas to focus on:
First, in order to make the NPT meaningful, the International Atomic Energy Agency should be given greater support for inspections and monitoring. Tougher IAEA safeguards recently announced in Vienna are a start and should be supported. New methods and techniques coming out of the IAEA experience in Iraq and North Korea could earlier detect evidence of a hidden nuclear program. Beefing up intelligence services work may also help.
Second, China. The People's Republic signed the NPT but remains outside all the important control regimes. It is neither a member of the nuclear suppliers group, nor the missile technology control regime - two restraints on potential export of bomb and missile components. No other major power has such a track record of selling bits and even large pieces of what it takes to make and deliver nuclear explosives. Until China tested a device this spring, a week after the NPT was signed, France had stayed in line. A focus on China as the most significant potential proliferator would signal Washington's seriousness on the subject.
It's time to take that step, and to strengthen international monitoring of nuclear programs, no matter what clock one is looking at.