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As the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union winds down, and with it the nuclear confrontation that has worried most of us for 40 years, there is a growing paradox: Nuclear weapons are more likely to proliferate.

The reason is that whatever influence the Soviet Union has wielded over its client states not to develop nuclear weapons is now diminished. This is particularly true after the resounding defeat of Iraq, equipped largely with Soviet arms. A withdrawal of Soviet military aid and advisers is no longer much of a threat to Saddam Hussein.One could argue the United States can fill this vacuum. But unless we are willing to use troops against the Libyas and North Koreas, or even against Iraq again, or unless there is some change in our relationship with such countries that gives us sudden and great influence over them, it's hard to see how we can.

Our own nuclear arsenal is all but worthless to halt proliferation. The intricate theory of deterrence, with its corollary of weapons development to "keep ahead" of the Soviet Union, is irrelevant. We would hardly launch a nuclear strike against a country that threatens a neighbor with a nuclear bomb.

With the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) coming up for review in 1995, the new world order may be characterized far more by disorder if Iraq's recent actions are any guide. What would we have done with Iraq if Saddam Hussein had had even a handful of nuclear bombs, however primitive?

We need a new national defense strategy to confront this difficult problem. Surely that strategy must be based on the non-proliferation treaty that allows onsite inspection of a nation's nuclear facilities. Over the last two decades this treaty has served us surprisingly well. Many observers in the 1960s (including President Kennedy) believed that by now we would face a world with a dozen or more additional nuclear powers. This hasn't happened in part, at least, because of inspections under the treaty.

The treaty needs to be strengthened so that the International Atomic Energy Agency can conduct unannounced challenge inspections of all, not merely part of each signer's nuclear facilities.

Unfortunately, the logic of the treaty brings us squarely up against our current behavior: the United States continues with its own nuclear weapons testing and development. This infuriates our treaty co-signers because it reminds them again and again of the double standard embodied in the treaty: The United States, the Soviet Union and the other nuclear "haves" may not only possess nuclear weapons but test and build more. The rest of the world may not.

At a treaty review conference last summer, Mexico and some other parties to the treaty simply said they had had enough: Either the United States and the other nuclear powers stop testing and development or the rest of the world will refuse to extend the treaty.

There is more to this than our sheer inertia. Having agreed to ban all nuclear tests in the atmosphere under the Limited Test Ban Treaty and all tests above 150 kilotons in the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, the United States has also committed to negotiate with the Soviet Union to end all tests. Because this commitment is contained in treaties signed by the president and ratified by the Senate, it has the force of law. So, by refusing to agree, we violate the law.

The Soviet Union says it's ready to stop testing. Now it's the United States' turn.

(Ralph Earle II, a Carter administration arms negotiator, heads the Lawyers Alliance for World Security. Thomas A. Robertson is an alliance board member.)