Historians and theologians have long recognized a perverse logic in human affairs: Bad events can lead to good outcomes. This has been particularly true of nuclear weapons, where actions by countries to acquire or use nuclear weapons often have led to a strengthening of the international efforts to stem their spread.
China's test of a nuclear weapon in 1964 focused the attention of American and Soviet leaders and the result was the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of today's nonproliferation regime. India's peaceful nuclear test in 1974 had similar effects. Likewise, revelations about Iraq's clandestine nuclear program led countries to tighten their export laws and to changes at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But what of the recent nuclear tests in South Asia? Will they spur the international community to do a better job on the problem of proliferation? Early indications are not encouraging.
World reaction to the nuclear tests has been negative but understated. Major countries like Britain, France and Germany have issued statements denouncing the tests while at the same time making clear that they will not impose full-scale sanctions. France and Germany went so far as to thwart an EU effort to impose strong penalties on the guilty parties.
Here in the U.S., political discussions of the Indian and Pakistani tests have taken a decidedly odd turn. While arms control advocates watched passively from the sidelines, conservatives jumped on the testing issue and with a straight face, declared that the tests had proved them right: The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was a bad idea.
The conservative senators and pundits who have trotted out this line have to be admired for their chutzpah, if not their logic. A month ago, the two most vociferous critics of the comprehensive test ban were Jesse Helms and the prime minister of India. Today, Helms somehow manages to simultaneously condemn the Indian tests and the treaty banning such tests.
Who is responsible for this sad state of affairs? Two parties deserve special mention. The first is President Clinton. Clinton, like other presidents before him, ignored the South Asian nuclear rivalry. Now the administration is paying the price for its neglect.
The second group deserving criticism consists of the arms control community and its more flamboyant cousin, the peace movement, or what's left of them. These groups have fallen on hard times as the public's interest in nuclear weapons has all but evaporated. Worse still, fickle foundations have abandoned the nuclear issue in favor of new, sexier topics.
But the arms control and peace groups also have contributed to their own irrelevance. Arms control groups have myopically focused on U.S. policy. Their "Beltway mentality" has prevented them from seeing that arms control has fundamentally changed, that it is an international issue requiring the expenditure of time and resources in other countries.
Peace groups, known for their youthful exuberance, have performed no better. When France conducted a series of nuclear tests a few years back, these groups responded with protests and wine boycotts. The result: French public opinion shifted and France eventually committed itself to the test ban treaty. Now there are new tests, but where are the protests? Where are the boycotts of Indian goods? Where is the criticism of India's provocatively nationalist government? (Many of these groups are no doubt embarrassed by their past endorsement of the Indian position. India had long been the darling of some peace groups because of its "Third World" critique of the U.S. nuclear policies.)
This situation need not continue. Clinton could take on the ideologues in the Senate. Arms control and peace groups could start looking beyond the Beltway, and foundations might acknowledge that the problem of nuclear weapons has not gone away and that serious work on proliferation will require sustained effort for years to come.
If the president and others fail this challenge, it will mark a new departure in the history of nuclear weapons. The Indian and Pakistani missteps could lead, not to a strengthening of the nonproliferation regime, but rather to its erosion and eventual collapse.