New York. -- The recent headlines were scary indeed.
Three men operating out of New York were accused of trying to sell part of an eight-ton zirconium stash to agents posing as Iraqi arms merchants.
This was no jewelry caper. The zirconium was the kind used to make nuclear weapons.
Nonetheless, many of us still have a sense that we are being protected from the international spread of atomic weapons.
One reason is the United Nations' "indefinite continuation" of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in May.
Unfortunately, history shows that agreements like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are cruel delusions.
They go back as far as the Byzantines, who worked out compacts with their enemies to ban a new superweapon, the crossbow, which they felt was too lethal for employment in warfare.
You can imagine how long this early international nonproliferation accord stayed in effect.
For the last hundred years, we've fooled ourselves into believing that scraps of paper could tame the inherent belligerence of nations.
At the Hague Peace Conference of 1907, the Great Powers made an effort to eliminate war via negotiation.
The consequent Hague agreement prohibited the launch of explosives from balloons, guaranteed the safety of neutral territory, outlawed surprise attack and limited the use of naval mines.
Unfortunately, these well-intentioned resolutions were unable to slow the approach of World War I.
After the war, in the naval treaty of 1922, the United States, Britain and Japan agreed to a strict, 10-year limitation on new warship construction and to abandon 2 million tons of planned or actual military vessels.
American Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes said that as a result of the treaty, "Preparation for naval warfare will stop now."
Then, in 1925, came the Pact of Locarno. The Western powers promised never again to go to war over their mutual frontiers.
Everyone thought that Locarno was a virtual guarantee of peace . . . except the Germans.
German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the accord, told confidants that the document was simply intended to buy Germany time in which to rearm.
The result: World War II.
The problem is that leaders bent on conquest follow the dictum of the late Chinese leader Chou En-lai, "All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means."
When Napoleon Bonaparte took power as "first consul" of France in 1799, he fired off letters to the king of Britain and to the holy Roman emperor telling them the time had come for all of Europe to lay down its weapons and embrace. Meanwhile, he issued an unpublicized proclamation declaring that France was about to launch a new mission -- "invading enemy states."
Then Bonaparte laid out plans for the conquest of half a dozen locations from Malta to the Arctic.
During his career, Napoleon was a master at using peace treaties to lull prospective prey into a false sense of security. His motto: "Promise as much as you like, but never keep your promises."
The fact that the world is now faced with the prospect of nuclear holocaust does not change the unhappy truth that leaders still use promises and treaties to further militaristic ends.
Iraq's Saddam Hussein operated on this principle when he built his nuclear capabilities behind a facade of compliance with the nuclear nonproliferation pact.
There are other world leaders with militaristic dreams like Saddam's, and they are likely to use the nonproliferation treaty the same way -- as a blind behind which to build an atomic arsenal.
Many of these leaders do not share the relative rationality that kept the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. from using their doomsday weapons for decades. The result could be a form of Armageddon of which we've never dreamed.
To date, the only method of peacekeeping that works has been the unquestioned military dominance of a single nation whose weaponry, readiness and tactics were so advanced that others dared not risk the use of force.
Such were the Pax Romanica of ancient times, the Pax Britannica of the 19th century and the Pax Americana of the last 50 years.
Unfortunately, as the United States has lost its economic edge, we've come to a point where we can't afford to continue as the world's preeminent military power.
It is imperative that we find a way to regain leadership in both the commercial and military spheres.
If we don't, freshly nuclearized states with visions of universal domination like Iran -- whether or not they've signed a nonproliferation treaty -- are likely to use their new weapons as they vie to fill the power vacuum we leave in our wake. The vision is not a pretty one. But no mere piece of U.N. stationery is likely to make it go away.
Howard Bloom is author of "The Lucifer Principle: a scientific expedition into the forces of history," published by Atlantic Monthly Press.