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The world was shaken last May when India and then Pakistan conducted underground nuclear tests. Citizens of the two countries danced in the streets as the two governments declared themselves members of the nuclear club. Reaction elsewhere was just as heartfelt, but for entirely different reasons. The prospect of an end to the nuclear taboo, worries about a nuclear exchange in South Asia and fears that proliferation might spread dismayed most of the rest of the world.

Those concerns remain unfounded, but it would be foolhardy to pretend that they will go away. India and Pakistan need to join the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the international norm that opposes the proliferation of nuclear weapons needs to be strengthened and more efforts need to be made to diminish tensions on the Indian subcontinent.

Fortunately, the United States has taken the initiative in trying to get India and Pakistan to rejoin the international consensus on these issues. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott last week wound up the eighth round of talks in as many months with the two governments. According to press reports, India will sign the CTBT by mid-1999. In addition, Mr. Talbott is reported to have won a similar commitment from Pakistan. If true, the U.S., and Mr. Talbott in particular, deserve applause for taking the lead in trying to resolve this critical issue.

The U.S., Japan and other Western nations reacted swiftly to the tests last spring by imposing economic sanctions on the two countries. It quickly became apparent to both New Delhi and Islamabad that they would pay a stiff price for their nuclear aspirations.

Unfortunately, both governments also had to answer to powerful nationalist sentiment at home: At times, it seemed that sanctions only stiffened the spines of hardliners and magnified their influence. The U.S-brokered negotiations began the month after the tests and it quickly became apparent that the key to any solution was a swap — signing the treaty in exchange for a lifting of the sanctions. Pakistan’s dire economic straits made it more susceptible to U.S. persuasion, but nationalist sentiment could not be ignored. Just as important were Islamabad’s security concerns. It feels genuinely threatened by an Indian bomb and some commitment on the part of India was needed before Pakistan could afford to sign the CTBT.

Indian government’s calculations were similarly complex. It is unlikely, however, that the tests represented a response to a particular threat. New Delhi’s chief strategic concern is China, not Pakistan, and there has been no change in its nuclear posture that would justify the May blasts. Rather, the wobbly coalition government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has consistently played up to its nationalist supporters. Reportedly, the tests were a foregone conclusion when his Bharatiya Janata Party won elections earlier in the year. At that point, military considerations took control and the tit-for-tat tests resulted.

The power of that dynamic is worrisome. Both sides must exercise restraint, but there is a fear that tactical issues — response time or command and control — could override wiser, cooler heads in a crisis. That is why it is imperative that both countries sign the CTBT, as well as begin the critical work of confidence-building between the two governments.

There are other important issues, such as nonproliferation. Pakistan has pledged to enact a new law aimed at preventing the sale of nuclear technology to other countries. That is vital, given comments by previous governments in Islamabad on the need to develop an “Islamic bomb.”

The proliferation issue also invites the scrutiny of other countries not directly involved in South Asia. China, for example, has reportedly helped Pakistan develop its weapon, with complete indifference to the consequences in South Asia and to the nonproliferation norm more generally. A country that has such aspirations to international status should be working more to strengthen international norms than undermine them.

That raises another question. The U.S. is to be applauded for taking the initiative in this matter and working to craft a solution. But criticism of the U.S. and other nuclear powers by “gray nations” and nuclear wannabes is also valid: There is more to the CTBT and the nuclear nonproliferation regime than a freeze of the status quo. Implicit in the pledge to refrain from developing and spreading such weapons of mass destruction is a commitment on the part of the nuclear powers to reduce and eventually eliminate their arsenals. The existing nuclear regime was not designed to perpetuate a world of nuclear haves and have-nots. Taking up that assignment is Mr. Talbott’s next challenge.

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