As 2000 approaches, the world may be facing a growing threat from the most dangerous invention of the 1900s: nuclear weapons.
The years following the fall of the Berlin Wall saw an easing of atomic tensions, as the superpower arms race evaporated and a feared spread of nuclear weapons to terrorists and rogue states didn't occur.
Now the clock is ticking again, say experts. India and Pakistan have The Bomb. North Korea is at work on long-range missiles. Russian nuclear security has been called into question by a series of incidents.
Meanwhile, the US remains committed to a cold-war-style nuclear force and a cold-war-era framework of arms-control agreements. It's not yet clear what direction long-term American policy will take in the wake of the Senate's historic rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty last week.
"The old architecture doesn't work anymore," argues Paul Bracken, a political scientist and professor at the Yale School of Management. "We need to fundamentally rethink arms control for an era where there are 10 states with weapons of mass destruction."
This does not mean that the globe is anywhere near as close to nuclear war as it was during the worst moments of the long shadow struggle between the US and the Soviet Union, such as the Cuban missile crisis. The 1990s have seen many events that arguably dimmed the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
The START I treaty, concluded in 1991, has reduced the US and Russia's permissible arsenals from well over 10,000 deployed nuclear weapons apiece to around 6,000. START II, signed in 1993, will cut these levels to between 3,000 and 3,500 - if it's ever ratified by the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.
South Africa, a clandestine nuclear state, renounced its program. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakstan chose to remain non-nuclear after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Both Russia and the US have pledged to not target the other with their remaining nukes. Never mind that the warheads of both nations can be retargeted within two minutes - it is, say Russian and American officials, the symbolism that counts.
Moving too slowly?
The problem, say some experts, is that these changes amount to slow and steady improvement in a world that is morphing at Internet speed.
As its economy shrinks to a size smaller than that of Belgium's, Russia can no longer afford many expensive conventional army divisions and fighter wings. It may be becoming increasingly dependent on its nuclear weapons for national security and prestige, says Professor Bracken of Yale.
The much-feared scenario of nuclear theft from Russian arsenals has not come to pass. But troubling incidents are increasing. Two years ago, a Russian submariner shot seven seamates and barricaded himself in the torpedo bay of his nuclear attack submarine. At around the same time, the guard of a Russian facility containing 30 tons of plutonium shot others and escaped.
"The list of incidents of this kind in Russia that we know about is chilling," writes Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, in a summary of world nuclear dangers.
True, the US arsenal has been reduced by more than half. But it costs $20 billion a year to maintain, and secret US war plans for its use in any conflict still focus on 2,000 targets in Russia.
"What would the United States conceivably do with 6,000 deployed nuclear warheads in the post-cold-war era?" concludes Mr. Krepon.
Yet it is in the so-called Arc of Crisis, stretching from the Middle East across south Asia and up to the Korean Peninsula, where the principal nuclear dangers of the early 21st century may lie.
India's and Pakistan's open acquisition of nuclear weapons represents an earthquake in proliferation terms. Iraq has thrown out the UN weapons inspectors who have long tried to keep tabs on its weapons of mass destruction. North Korea remains a primary concern of US officials, despite its recent pledge to refrain from further tests of missiles that might hit Japan and beyond.
US officials say America's nuclear stockpile can help deter attacks on US targets by smaller states with weapons of mass destruction. That may be true, say experts, but for the most part, the threshold nuclear powers have an eye on neighbors, not the US.
"In the Middle East, northeast Asia, and Southeast Asia, nuclear weapons are viewed as a deterrent or a means of coercion based on the dynamics of regional security," wrote Robert Manning, a former State Department adviser, in a Foreign Policy article on the next chapter of the nuclear age.
Thus the US has little direct leverage over the actions of many of the "nuclear threshold" states. It relies instead on a net of interlinked measures - from multilateral weapons pacts to economic sanctions - to control the spread of atomic weaponry.
It's this multidimensional effort that may have been undermined by the Senate's vote against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), say some arms-control proponents.
India had pledged to agree to the CTBT after its recent election. Pakistan had said it would follow India's action. These promises are now at risk - particularly as the coup in Pakistan could further destabilize the military situation in south Asia.
Taken as a whole, the events of last week "are certainly no reason to be optimistic," says John Rhinelander, a negotiator of the SALT 1 arms pact with the Soviet Union. "Whether we ought to be deeply pessimistic, I don't know."
The scenario experts fear is a south Asian arms race in which India and Pakistan develop thermonuclear weapons and multiple methods of warhead delivery.
Future of Start II
When it comes to more traditional bilateral arms pacts, the Senate vote certainly won't make Russia's parliament race to ratify the stalled START II treaty. But START II was already going nowhere quickly, due to Russia's own domestic political concerns.
Coming Russian presidential elections mean action on START II is unlikely in the for the foreseeable future. That leaves a START III pact, which US and Russian negotiators have already discussed and which could reduce arsenals to 1,000 warheads, only a distant possibility.
Also unclear is the future of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. US officials, concerned about a future where Iran, Iraq, or other proliferators might be able to launch a limited nuclear strike at the American mainland, have pushed Russia to loosen ABM restrictions. Both nations might benefit from a limited ability to defend against missiles, US officials argue.
The US has even offered inducements such as help in finishing a major radar installation near Irkutsk in Siberia. But, to this point, the Russians have remained unswayed.
That could set up another turning point for arms control early next century. Congress has persistently pushed the administration to promise to begin deploying a missile defense in 2002.
There is even less support in the Senate for continued adherence to the ABM pact than there is for CTBT ratification, say some experts. "The whole arms control system that was designed for the cold war, which worked very well, is falling apart," says Bracken.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society