Over the past three decades, much of the world has cooperated in constructing a bulwark of ambitious agreements designed to curb or eliminate the most deadly weapons ever devised by man.
Together, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, and other pacts are regarded as building blocks of global stability in the 21st century.
But as the showdown over the United Nations search for Iraq's illegal arms enters its second month, there's growing concern over the world's willingness to restrict the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
US and UN officials, as well as independent experts, say the outcome of the Iraq crisis could signal whether the international community will take tough steps to eliminate the threat.
Its failure to do so, they say, could exacerbate the danger by encouraging states like Iraq to pursue covert nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, even if they are parties to arms-control treaties.
"Iraq is a test case for something far wider," Richard Butler, the top UN inspector, said last weekend on NBC. "Are we going to live in a 21st century in which weapons of mass destruction are around every corner or ... are we going to live a more civilized life?"
The deep uncertainty over international cooperation on counter-proliferation grows out of differences among the world's most powerful nations over dealing with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's challenge to UNSCOM, the UN inspection group.
Eager to reopen trade deals with Baghdad, France and Russia are seeking to short-circuit UNSCOM to hasten the lifting of UN sanctions on Iraq. Russia's pledge to seek an end to sanctions led to an Oct. 22 resumption of UNSCOM operations after a three-week hiatus triggered by Iraq's expulsion of US experts.
French and Russian advocacy on Iraq's behalf comes despite evidence that Saddam retains an arsenal of illegal weapons seven years after UNSCOM began work in the wake of the Gulf War.
This cache is believed to include 6,000 gallons of anthrax, a deadly toxin, and ingredients to produce as much as 200 tons of the nerve agent VX, enough to kill everyone on earth. Iraq is also suspected of concealing dozens of Scud medium-range missiles.
The US and Britain oppose lifting the sanctions until UNSCOM accounts for the missing materials. The UN, they say, must be allowed into more than 70 installations, including dozens of Saddam's palaces, from which it has been blocked. Iraq is refusing to comply, citing national security and sovereignty issues.
The dispute among the US, France, Russia, and Britain - four of the five permanent UN Security Council members - raises serious questions about their ability to cooperate on enforcing global arms-control accords.
Under several treaties, violations may be referred for action to the Council, where narrow self-interests could come into play.
"I think there are absolutely serious implications," warns a senior Pentagon official. "We have to demonstrate ... that the international community is united and serious about this matter."
Jack Mendelsohn of the Arms Control Association in Washington says the positions of France and Russia show that some governments are prepared to place financial gain before arms control. This tendency is also apparent in Russian and Chinese sales of "dual-use" and missile technologies to states regarded as proliferation risks, such as Iran.
An issue of sovereignty
Other governments refusing to hew to the US and British line may be alarmed at the degree of access to key military and industrial sites that UNSCOM is seeking in Iraq. "There are nations that see that the issue of sovereignty being played out in Iraq could some day play out against them," Mr. Mendelsohn says.
But should Iraq prevail in blocking UNSCOM's access to targeted installations, some experts say a dangerous precedent could be set for ensuring compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, which took effect in April.
Both treaties have intrusive inspection regimes. But states that thought they could thwart monitoring could be more inclined to pursue illegal weapons programs.
"Whether or not the international community is willing to pursue this monitoring in the face of strong evidence of non-compliance ... tells a lot about how serious the international community is about abolishing these weapons," says Amy Smithson of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington research institute.
Growing global threat
The concerns over international counter-proliferation efforts have been further bolstered by the release Tuesday of a new Pentagon study that says more than 25 countries are pursuing or have developed nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
"The threat is neither far-fetched nor far off," says Defense Secretary William Cohen.
The study reiterates the Clinton administration's concerns with the so-called "rogue" states of Iraq, Iran, Libya, and North Korea. It also restates US apprehensions over weapons-related sales by China and Russia, despite their memberships in a number of arms control accords.