President Clinton should seize the opportunity just before or during next week's Group of Seven summit to order a total ban on any further U.S. nuclear weapons tests unless another nation breaks the existing worldwide moratorium. This would be the most decisive action he could take to prevent a host of other countries from arming themselves with nuclear weaponry -- a prospect that would vastly complicate U.S. military planning for the post Cold War world.
The argument advanced by the Pentagon and various nuclear testing laboratories that they need another series of tests -- nine would be enough if they can't have 15 -- is the repeat of an old, old song that has prevented the United States from pushing for a complete and comprehensive test ban in the past. It is no longer persuasive. Any incremental increase in warhead safety from further tests can hardly match the potential security advantages in dissuading other nations from joining the nuclear club.
According to Mark Matthews, diplomatic correspondent of The Sun, the Clinton administration is shifting to a "no first test" doctrine after first leaning toward a nine-test option. If this trend is confirmed by a presidential announcement, Mr. Clinton would be author of a historic decision. It is one that would give the United States far more moral authority to bring pressure on the likes of India, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea to stay non-nuclear and accept international inspections.
At present, only the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Ukraine have officially acknowledged nuclear arsenals, and Ukraine has promised in wavering fashion to give its up. In 1995 the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is up for renewal. By its very nature the NPT is a discriminatory pact in which the nuclear nations try to deny weapons they possess to others. The position of nuclear club nations will be far more telling if, at least, they can claim to have stopped testing.
If Mr. Clinton chooses the "no first test" option, Russia, France and Britain would go along -- albeit the last two reluctantly. That would leave China as the potential crockery-breaker, but at least it would be isolated within the nuclear club. No tests have been conducted anywhere since last October and there is a good chance 1993 will be the first full year since 1959 to have been nuclear free.
Not surprisingly, there have been divided counsels in the Clinton administration on this issue. What seems to have swung the debate in the right direction has been the Energy Department's support of the "no first test" theory despite the opposition of its own weapons laboratories and the Defense and State departments. In the end, only a president can make such a vital decision. We are counting on President Clinton to do not only what is wise and right for U.S. security but to signal his readiness for world leadership.