IN WASHINGTON, the nuclear test ban treaty is the subject of political gamesmanship. In Pakistan, the unnerving reality of nuclear proliferation is plain for all to see. A country that went openly nuclear last year, and that this year came close to war with nuclear India, has now succumbed to a military takeover. The coup leader, Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, is despised by India, so his arrival may accelerate the nuclear arms race between the two countries.

In responding to the coup, the Clinton administration needs to balance two objectives. The first is to stress that America cannot condone attacks on democracy -- even when, as is the case in Pakistan, the deposed democrat is guilty of economic mismanagement and human-rights abuses. Speaking out for democracy serves to encourage Pakistan's new military leadership to set a brisk timetable for its return to the barracks; just as important, it sends a message to would-be coupsters from Jakarta to Bogota that America is serious about promoting its values internationally.

Second, the administration needs to stay on speaking terms with the Pakistanis, even while delivering a robust pro-democracy message. Pakistan and its immediate neighbors are a cauldron of instabilities, each of which potentially threatens American interests. To the west and north lie Iran and Afghanistan, sponsors of anti-American terrorism. To the east and south lie China and India, nuclear powers run by chauvinist governments with an anti-American bent. Pakistan itself is ethnically divided and lawless, dirt poor and unable to cope with its multiplying population. It is a nuclear bomb on top of a demographic one.

America cannot aspire to make this region stable. But it must try to prevent instability there from acquiring an anti-American focus; and it should do everything in its power to prevent the modernization and proliferation of nuclear weapons. That is why the administration has been right to speak out for democracy but to stop short of punishing Pakistan with sanctions. That is why it must follow up now with efforts to cool tensions between Pakistan and India. And that is why the Senate, in blocking a test ban that might have decelerated an India-Pakistan arms race, was absolutely wrong.