The United States may be cooperating with Russia to halt the Indo-Pakistani atomic rivalry, but their own bilateral tensions and stormy internal politics threaten further serious blows to global arms-control efforts.
Whether the two biggest nuclear powers can resolve the issues is seen by experts as a crucial test of their oft-stated pledges to curb proliferation and work together on a growing host of other difficult problems:
* US ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has been blocked for nine months by GOP Senate leaders. They want to kill the pact as well as amendments to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Moscow on grounds they fail to halt proliferation, will undermine US nuclear capabilities, and prevent deployment of a national missile-defense system.
* Russia's Communist-dominated parliament, or Duma, this month put off again ratification of the 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II), which would cut deployed US and Russian warheads to no more than 3,500 each. Some deputies are using the pact as a bargaining chip with President Boris Yeltsin on unrelated issues. Others, alarmed by Russia's eroding conventional military strength and NATO expansion, want to maintain a large nuclear arsenal.
* The Duma is also tying START II approval to Senate passage of the ABM Treaty changes. Some deputies warn NATO intervention in Yugoslavia's restive Kosovo province could further jeopardize a vote.
* Mr. Clinton, who hasn't met President Yeltsin in more than two years, will not go to Moscow for a summit to discuss a proposed START III pact and other issues until the Duma ratifies START II. The US ratified it in 1996. "The whole thing looks pretty hopeless to me," says Nikolai Sokov, a former Soviet arms negotiator now at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, in Monterey, Calif.
Other experts are not so gloomy. Jack Mendelsohn of the Arms Control Association, in Washington, believes the dangers of unchecked proliferation will eventually compel approval of the CTBT. But he is less certain about START II's prospects, saying that the "Russians are clutching their nuclear weapons because they are beleaguered by NATO expansion."
The demise of the treaties, coupled with last month's Indian and Pakistani tests, would represent a reversal of dramatic gains made in arms control since 1988, when Washington and Moscow signed an accord eliminating short- and medium-range nuclear missiles.
Since then, the two nations have signed two START pacts to cut cold-war stockpiles by two-thirds and destroy thousands of delivery systems. The START III pact, proposed by Clinton in 1996, would slash deployed warheads to 2,000 each. South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina meanwhile shut down secret nuclear programs, while Kazakstan, Belarus, and Ukraine agreed to return Soviet warheads to Russia.
In 1995, the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which restricts atomic arms to the nuclear powers (US, Russia, China, France, Britain) won indefinite renewal. More than 180 states are on board. A year later, the UN General Assembly approved the CTBT. Almost 150 nations signed the accord; 13 have ratified it. "Things were going our way," says Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "Now suddenly, they are going the other."
BESET by similar concerns, the Clinton administration is stepping up appeals for Senate approval of the CTBT. It argues the Indian and Pakistani tests make it more vital for international stability and US security. "Efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons do not come with a guarantee," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a June 10 speech. "But to abandon them because they have been dealt a setback would be a felony against the future."
But Republican leaders see things differently. They assert that defiance by New Delhi and Islamabad of the nonproliferation trend proves that the CTBT and other multilateral treaties cannot halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The CTBT "is scarcely more than a sham," says Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who has bottled up the treaty in his panel. Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi has indicated that a CTBT vote will not be held this year, a setback for Clinton, who made ratification by this spring a major goal.
US approval of the CTBT, which opinion polls say is favored by a vast majority of Americans, is critical to its future. It cannot go into effect unless ratified by all 44 countries that operate nuclear reactors. India and Pakistan, which refused to sign the pact, are also among those states.
CTBT opposition is rooted in a belief that periodic underground tests are needed to ensure that US warheads operate properly as they age. But the Clinton administration says weapons reliability can be ensured by computer simulation and other advanced techniques.
Republicans also oppose the ABM Treaty amendments reached with Russia last year. They consider the treaty a cold-war relic harmful to national security because it restricts deployment of a missile-defense system. Yet Duma members say they will not approve START II unless the Senate ratifies the ABM Treaty changes.