Thanks in part to the ideological baggage that the Reagan Administration brought with it into office, the United States will find itself on the defensive at the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference that opens in Geneva today.
For many years thoughtful people have agreed that while the danger of nuclear attack by one of the major powers on the other had to be reckoned with, a greater peril lay in the potential spread of nuclear weapons to more and more countries. The more fingers on the nuclear trigger, the greater the danger of nuclear war through accident, miscalculation, sheer irrationality or unintended escalation.
Under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which took effect in 1970, countries that did not have nuclear weapons pledged to refrain from developing or acquiring them. The nuclear powers promised to "negotiate in good faith" toward nuclear disarmament.
The treaty has been signed by 134 countries--including the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain. China and France are not signatories.
On balance the agreement has been an impressive success. Not one country has overtly gone nuclear since the treaty was signed. The United States and the Soviet Union, at cross purposes in so many ways, have found a common interest in discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons.
But there is a downside. Israel is believed to have a small stockpile of nuclear weapons or components that could be readily assembled. India exploded a nuclear device in 1974, and is obviously capable of building bombs. Rival Pakistan may be on the verge of building a nuclear arsenal.
Heading off the threatened spread of nuclear weapons belongs at the top of the global agenda. But the neutrals and Third World countries attending the review conference in Geneva aren't much interested in talking about proliferation. Instead, they are determined to put the great powers in the dock for failing to make genuine progress toward nuclear disarmament.
Washington can argue that it has tried to live up to its side of the treaty bargain; according to data published by the Arms Control Assn., this country's stockpile of nuclear warheads is substantially smaller than when the treaty was signed.
But the mood of the review conference is to use enthusiasm for a comprehensive test-ban treaty as the litmus test of good intentions. And on that basis the Reagan Administration has allowed itself to be needlessly outflanked by the Soviets, who recently announced a nuclear-testing moratorium and invited Washington to do likewise.
There is good reason to question the wisdom of an immediate, unenforceable test moratorium. What's really needed is a resumption of the comprehensive test-ban negotiations--a forum in which the very real complexities of the problem can be dealt with.
The Administration may surprise us, but it appears to be stuck just about where it was when Ronald Reagan became President--uninterested in a comprehensive test ban, and not especially anxious to consider compromise approaches that would drastically limit nuclear tests while falling short of full prohibition.
If the Administration sticks to a rigid position, there is a danger that some signatories to the non-proliferation treaty will renounce their adherence to the pact. They may only be looking for an excuse. Considering the overriding importance of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, however, Washington should be taking every reasonable step to avoid providing that excuse.