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The specter of a nuclear holocaust lingers as the world approaches the 21st century. True, the end of the Cold War halted the U.S.-Soviet nuclear-arms race and prompted efforts to reduce strategic nuclear weapons. But the theory of nuclear deterrence — which created a “balance of terror” during the Cold War — dies hard, holding back progress toward nuclear disarmament.

In fact, nuclear powers are trying to devise new nuclear strategies in the uncertain post-Cold War world. No less disturbing is the emergence of nuclear-capable states with the potential to make the bomb. This clouds the prospects for nuclear nonproliferation and pushes the goal of total nuclear disarmament into the distant future.

The nuclear age dawned with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The United States and the Soviet Union, locked in a deepening ideological contest, began all-out efforts to develop nuclear-weapons systems and established the enormous threat of nuclear war as the bedrock of their national security. The seemingly endless arms race, however, came to a grinding halt in the last years of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, took the initiative for disarmament under the policy of “perestroika,” realizing that there can be no winners in the nuclear-arms race. The Soviet Union in his day had compelling reasons to compromise. For one thing, the Soviets were facing pressure in the form of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program, otherwise known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. The primary reason, however, was the failure of the Soviet economy due to heavy spending on nuclear-arms development.

The economic crisis forced Mr. Gorbachev to break with the central command system of communist dictatorship. And finally, just 10 years ago, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall following the secession of East European satellite states, Mr. Gorbachev declared an end to the Cold War. In July 1991, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed their first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I. The treaty seemed to set the stage for drastic disarmament that would lead eventually to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. As it turned out, however, the collapse of the Cold-War structure opened a Pandora’s box of regional conflicts, instead of creating the much-heralded “new world order.” The smoldering nationalisms that had been held in check by the ideological yoke exploded violently in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.

The disintegration of the Soviet empire gave rise to new independent states. Russia, which inherited the rump Soviet Union, dropped out of the superpower race with the U.S. The Russian sense of loss and defeat seemed to have been reinforced by the survival of NATO, created in 1949 as a defense shield against the Soviet bloc.

The campaign for strategic nuclear-arms reduction apparently gained momentum with the signing of START II in January 1993, which called for the eventual elimination of multiple-warhead ICBMs. However, ratification of the treaty by the Russian Parliament is now up in the air — perhaps an indication that the Russians, their pride deeply wounded, are now less than willing to cooperate with the Americans.

Moscow is already trying to map out a new nuclear strategy to counter the overwhelming U.S. dominance. While deploying a new type of ICBM as a key element of its defense capability, Russia is moving toward improving its tactical nuclear weapons as well. These developments, it should be noted, have been prompted in part by recent moves by NATO and the U.S.

The U.S.-led NATO has adopted a new strategic concept allowing the use of force outside its region — a concept that was applied to the bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo crisis. NATO has also reaffirmed that it will maintain nuclear capability. In addition, the U.S. has conducted its first successful tests of its National Missile Defense system, which originated with the SDI.

With their mutual trust diminishing, the U.S. and Russia appear poised to repeat the vicious cycle of nuclear-arms buildup. They have just resumed preliminary talks on START III and disarmament dialogues on the treaty limiting antiballistic missiles, but the going apparently promises to be rough.

The five-nation nuclear oligopoly was shaken by the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in May 1998. Regional conflicts around the globe make it urgently necessary to establish a stricter regime of nuclear nonproliferation. The fate of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty hangs in the balance three years after it was adopted by the United Nations. With a new millennium about to begin in 50 days, the nuclear powers must themselves lead the crusade to create a nuclear-free world.

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