Raft of Arms Treaties Define New Year ... Maybe New Era

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NINETEEN-NINETY-FIVE is shaping up as a seminal year in world affairs - perhaps the most important since the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989.

Several developments are converging that promise to determine the way nations will view their security and the weapons of mass destruction they possess.

The outcome will either be a planet that is more dangerous or an unprecedented step toward creating what one expert calls a "durable world order." The catalysts:

* The emergence of a tier of nations that have the know-how to produce nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Historically subordinate to the great powers, this group of 30-plus countries, from Kazakhstan to Argentina, is poised to play a far more influential role on the world stage.

* Waning confidence in institutions that have helped maintain peace since World War II - including the "great power" nations of the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China in general, and the United Nations in particular, which have faltered in the face of Serbian aggression in the former Yugoslavia.

* Uncertainty surrounding the future of arms control. By coincidence, agreements to limit nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons come up for review or ratification next year in what promises to be the most important examination ever of global efforts to control these nonconventional weapons.

The interaction of these events, says Brad Roberts, editor of the Washington Quarterly, will constitute a "unique moment in world affairs."

If the technically empowered states "can be kept firmly involved in the international effort to prevent the militarization of conflicts, to control armaments, and to promote the cooperative resolution of common problems, the international community will have gone a very long way toward putting in place essential ingredients of a durable world order," Mr. Roberts writes in the current issue.

"But if they drift away from these efforts, the consequences could be profound:" dissension among the big powers, greater risk of local conflict, and the end of collective security operations like "Desert Shield," the massive international force mobilized in 1990 to repel Iraqi aggression in Kuwait. The challenge

Containing the spread of nonconventional weapons will be harder now than it was during the cold war, experts say. Then, the world was dominated by superpowers that had a strong incentive to limit regional competition and whose security guarantees, in many cases, did away with the need for their allies to build nonconventional weapons.

Containment has also become harder because of the steady erosion of technical constraints, which has made it easier for less-advanced nations to develop nuclear and other nonconventional capabilities.

Advances in computerization have helped. So has a more open world trading system, which has made stemming the flow of high technology equipment across international frontiers harder.

As John Holum, director of the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), notes, the technical constraints that have prevented many nations from building nonconventional weapons in the past are weakening because the materials and know-how needed to build them are now so widely disseminated.

That puts a premium on constraining the demand for these weapons, he says, by building a stronger, more credible nonproliferation "regime" or set of arms-control agreements. If that goal is achieved, developing nations might be persuaded to continue to entrust their security to such a regime.

But "if they think the great powers aren't serious," Mr. Holum warns, "countries once confident that their neighbors weren't going to develop {nonconventional} weapons may think their neighbors are going to do so, so the whole thing could unravel."

Experts say war is not the only risk. States could use their nonconventional weapons to gain leverage - for example, to veto a joint-security operation. …