Nukes 'Not the Way'

President Clinton used an apt phrase in talking about India's explosion of nuclear devices and Pakistan's threat to do the same: "It is a nutty way to go," he said at the Group of Eight meeting in Birmingham, England, over the weekend. "It is not the way to chart the future."

Indeed it isn't.

Every so often, astronauts circle the globe. They see one world. Smoke from Mexican fires ripples across the United States border. Fires in Indonesia choke the air of Singapore and Malaysia. It is one world.

For India to deploy nuclear weapons as part of its defense seems a display of old-fashioned machismo, if not altogether "nutty."

"India is now a nuclear weapons state," declared Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, at the same time promising that "Ours will never be weapons of aggression."

We don't doubt Mr. Vajpayee's sincerity. His test blasts seem more like an effort to boost the popularity of his shaky right-of-center coalition government than a serious strengthening of its defense. Everyone knows India has long had nuclear capability.

Muscle-flexing, of course, is not a behavior restricted to developing countries. United States politicians can sound pumped up at times too.

But at the end of the 20th century a nation's greatness is no longer measured by whether it can set off a nuclear explosion. Other factors - economic strength, a thriving culture, a constructive scientific community, a properly functioning democracy - are more relevant to winning respect.

As Mr. Clinton noted, India's underground nuclear blasts risk drawing Pakistan, China, and Russia into a conflict. "The answer is not for India to become a nuclear power, and then for Pakistan to match it stride for stride, and then for China to be brought in to support the Pakistanis and move troops to the Indian border, and for Russia to come in and to recreate in a different context the conflicts of the cold war," he said.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif responded Sunday to India's action by noting that he was "not worried ... because Pakistan has the same potential to conduct a nuclear test."

Pakistan would demonstrate more real strength by restraining from such action. It knows India's nuclear capacity. It knows its own nuclear ability. It may be hoping to extract concessions from the US in exchange for Pakistani forbearance.

Both India and Pakistan have far more important measures to take. They have widespread illiteracy and poverty to tackle. An explosion of effort in this regard would do their peoples much more good than putting a radioactive hole in the ground and raising levels of fear.

Meanwhile, the G-8 failed to reach an agreement on sanctions against India. The US, Japan, and Canada will go ahead with various economic punishments. But we doubt sanctions will change minds in India or Pakistan. A rusty style of nationalism is ascendant in these nations right now.

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