After The Cold War, The Nuclear Threat Grows

At first glance, it seems that the world is making big strides in controlling nuclear weapons. On Aug. 10, French President Jacques Chirac backed banning all nuclear weapons testing, in part to blunt global criticism of France's coming bomb blasts under the South Pacific. The next day, President Clinton said he also favored a total test ban, making it likely that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will be approved next year. That sweeping pact would complement the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that more than 170 nations approved in May.

But guess again if you think the nuclear threat is diminishing. Critical arms-control pacts that helped hold the bomb in check for 50 years appear to be at risk. At the same time, contraband trade in weapons-grade nuclear material is thriving, leading some analysts to yearn for the stability of the cold war. "Today, the world is in fact a more dangerous place," says Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

SUSPICION. For decades, arms control was the all but exclusive province of U.S. and Soviet leaders who understood the devastating force of nuclear weapons. Hopes were high that the Soviet breakup would speed disarmament efforts. But just the opposite appears to be happening. Mistrust is growing between Washington and Moscow. A Republican-controlled U.S. Congress and an inexperienced Russian Parliament, sullen over the Soviet breakup, stand poised to kill such crucial strategic pacts as the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and the proposed START II accord. Says Sergei Karaganov, deputy director of Moscow's Institute of Europe: "The whole body of international agreements which have been created are now crumbling."

The first to fall could be the ABM treaty. On Aug. 3, the U.S. Senate approved $300 million to develop a scaled-back Star Wars weapons program that, if deployed, would violate the pact. Proponents claim that the ABM system is needed to counter future threats such as a new generation of Chinese strategic missiles and North Korea's Taepo Dong II missile.

But an ABM system would cause a chain reaction in Moscow. Too strained economically to fund a competing antimissile system, Moscow is likely to retaliate by rejecting START II. If that happens, U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals will not shrink by two-thirds, as scheduled, but would remain at about 9,000 warheads each. Moreover, Moscow could repudiate START I, which has eliminated thousands of warheads.

The new climate of suspicion will make it harder to address another potentially lethal problem--the growing spread of nuclear-weapons materials to rogue states such as Libya and Iran. Ironically, START I has exacerbated the problem, since much of the weapons-grade material no longer is stored in well-guarded warheads. Instead, the material has been broken down into bulk form, which can be more easily hidden or smuggled. Experts have so far documented five seizures of plutonium and uranium from Russia's huge nuclear cache last year.

Already, governments in Washington and European capitals are putting together high-level campaigns to stem the flow. Even so, worries William C. Potter, a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies: "The long-anticipated deluge may well occur." If weapons-grade materials do start flowing to highly aggressive states and cold-war-era arms-control pacts fall apart, the world will indeed become a far more dangerous place.