THE LAST BLAST FROM FRANCE

 

It would be a pity if the very predictability of the hostile international reaction to France's latest nuclear test in the Pacific were to obscure how profoundly regrettable the current series has been. They are an environmental hazard. They set a very bad example in terms of nuclear proliferation. And they represent an unacceptable model of power projection for international politics after the end of the Cold War.

These points need restating even as speculation increases that Saturday's test may well be the last of the series. Whether it is so will depend on an assessment of how it has fulfilled its stated purpose. This is defined by the French authorities as guaranteeing the safety and reliability of the latest generation of that state's submarine based missiles by enabling computer simulation to be carried out accurately after France signs the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, under negotiation in Geneva this year. They are at pains to explain that France supports a total ban, even of low level tests, and complain that this fact is obscured by the international protests.

It would indeed be a great relief, especially for Asian states and peoples, if this test is the last of the current series, because of the environmental hazard they represent. The argument that they are harmless is far too complacent and self serving and has not been satisfactorily proved. It would be an even greater relief were a treaty to be signed this year which would bring to an end the estimated total of 2,043 nuclear tests carried out since the first US one in 1945. It is much too early to say precisely how they have damaged and endangered the earth, but undoubtedly we are far better off without them.

We are not made better off, however, by the continuation of an international political system that depends so essentially on nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantors of power. By freezing the number of states possessing them this test ban treaty and the nuclear non proliferation treaty signed last year tacitly acknowledge current power realities based on the established distribution of nuclear weapons. A deeper argument against the French tests is that they are likely to exacerbate frustrations among the aspirant nuclear states about being so excluded, thereby making the policing and operation of the treaties more difficult in years to come. All the more reason to insist on the most important argument against the French tests that they are carried out in the name of an inherently dangerous model of international politics.

Nuclear weapons, for all their sophistication, are embedded in a technology and a psychology of deterrence and escalation that are dangerous in themselves - and much more difficult to justify after the end of the Cold War. It is not a utopian but an honourable and achievable objective to work seriously for their elimination. Increasing numbers of political and military leaders around the world are coming to this conclusion, based on a rejection of conventional deterrence theories and policies. At least the French tests have, ironically, helped to concentrate public opinion on this fundamental question.