The United States cannot sit meekly by while a nuclear race develops on the Indian subcontinent. But finding the right combination of carrot and stick to head off such a race poses a formidable challenge to this country's diplomatic skills.
Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) wants to suspend all U.S. aid to Pakistan until that country halts its nuclear program. That is too much stick. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) is closer to the right combination with a plan to cut military aid by half while diplomats try to reason with Pakistan.
What makes the task so formidable is that Pakistan is not the only country that must be persuaded to prevent nuclear-weapons production from jumping any more national fences. India and Israel are also part of the problem.
American experts have long suspected that Pakistan is trying to make nuclear weapons--a suspicion that recently hardened to a near-certainty. Pakistan is producing bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium at a plant in Kahuta, and is widely assumed to have all the necessary components for a bomb.
If Pakistan pushes forward, India, which exploded an atomic device in 1974, may well react by producing its own nuclear weapons. If India goes into the bomb business, that could set off alarm bells in Beijing. The political chain reaction could interfere with U.S.-Soviet efforts to scale back their own nuclear forces.
The worst-case scenario is that to break the chain India or the Soviet Union might bomb Pakistani nuclear facilities.
As part of an effort to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons, U.S. law bans military aid to any country deemed to be in the business of making or acquiring nuclear weapons. The American ambassador, Dean Hinton, warned recently that the Pakistani nuclear program will make it very difficult for President Reagan to certify to Congress that Pakistan does not have a "nuclear explosive device." Still Reagan is pressing for congressional approval of a six-year, $4-billion package of economic and military aid for Pakistan.
Pakistan is of great strategic importance to the United States. It stands as a barrier to Soviet ambitions in South Asia, and its cooperation is crucial to U.S. intelligence agencies and their installations in Pakistan from which they eavesdrop electronically on the Soviet Union. Pakistan also is an irreplaceable conduit for arms and other aid to guerrillas in Afghanistan who are fighting the Soviet invaders.
If the United States leans too hard on Pakistan, it could be charged with applying a double standard. Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program is presumably a response to that atomic test in India years ago. Pakistan also has offered, on one condition, to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which obliges signatory nations to accept international inspection of their nuclear facilities. The condition is that India also sign. So far India has not agreed.
Israel is an even pricklier diplomatic problem. Israel has never admitted that it has nuclear weapons, but the consensus among international nuclear specialists is that it has the components for at least 25 bombs ready for assembly, and one recent report claimed that the number was closer to 100 or 200. Yet there has never been a serious suggestion that the United States withhold military aid to Israel.
Faced with these realities, U.S. officials fear that too much American pressure on Pakistan would be counterproductive, that it might goad Pakistan into testing a nuclear device just to show its independence. That would almost certainly trigger renewed Indian testing, and a nuclear arms race would be under way.
The lesser evil is also unacceptable--that the Pakistanis might be tempted to listen harder to the Soviet Union's less-than-satisfactory proposals for peace in Afghanistan.
Clearly Cranston's combination of carrot and stick is the place to start. But if U.S. pressure on Pakistan is to enjoy even a shred of credibility, it must be accompanied by strong representations to India to accept proposals for mutual Pakistan-India inspection of nuclear facilities, and firmly expressed concerns that Israel, by building a large nuclear deterrent, is guaranteeing the ultimate development of nuclear capabilities by its Arab neighbors.