Escalating foreign policy conflicts between a narrow, mean-spirited Congress and an inept, breathtakingly partisan White House now cloud U.S. strategy on nuclear deterrence. Strategic splintering threatens to replace consensus in Washington and undermine U.S. leadership abroad.

The question of endangered leadership lies at the heart of a private letter written in September to President Clinton by French President Jacques Chirac, who has seen his worst fears confirmed in the five weeks that have passed without any reply from Clinton to the French leader.

In that time, Senate Republicans rejected U.S. participation in a global ban on nuclear testing. The administration accelerated its search for modification to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. And the White House launched a politically driven effort to brand all Republicans as "new isolationists," reducing even more the chances for bipartisanship on deterrence--a policy that depends on unity and clarity of purpose.

Perhaps the big news in all this is that 10 years after the Cold War began to end, nuclear arsenals and the strategies that govern them still occupy a central place in global and American politics. The Berlin Wall went quietly into history's long night. But Dr. Strangelove is alive and flitting--stirring ambitions and concerns on Capitol Hill, at the Kremlin, in grubby think tanks in New Delhi and in gilded salons at the Elysee Palace.

Congress and the White House must now look at the cumulative and schizophrenic effect of their recent political sparring and piecemeal decision-making on strategy. The result is increasingly to isolate the United States and to bring together the world's other declared nuclear powers in opposition to a growing strain of U.S. unilateralism.

America is becoming a far more domineering abroad than most Americans can comprehend. Congress requires the Pentagon to keep 6,000 warheads deployed and available for launch on intercontinental missiles, bombers and submarines--even though the Pentagon says it does not need more than 5,000 to destroy all possible adversaries. It could in fact live with many fewer warheads.

At the same time the Senate insists on keeping the option to increase U.S. dominance by new testing, and the administration and Congress both demand that Russia agree to ABM treaty changes to permit building of a U.S. national missile defense system no other nation can match on its own.

Strong arguments can be made for each of these steps on its own merits. But U.S. policymakers and legislators are missing the wider repercussions of their deeds and words on cooperative international efforts to limit the spread--and importance--of nuclear weapons as the 21st century begins.

China, Russia and France now form a united front in opposing U.S. efforts to change the ABM treaty. Beijing and Moscow have drafted a U.N. resolution to prohibit any treaty changes. Even in Britain there is unease in official circles with the direction of U.S. strategy, although Prime Minister Tony Blair is too close to President Clinton to permit any expression of disquiet at a political level.

Chirac is not so inhibited. He wrote Clinton in September to warn of the risks of an emerging strategic incoherence. The pressure to change the ABM treaty had to be seen in the light of U.S. failure or reticence to ratify a string of other international arms control accords, Chirac counseled.

A Clinton response to Chirac's letter is finally in the pipeline, I am told. But Chirac has gone public in the meantime. Standing beside Chinese President Jiang Zemin at the Elysee last week, the French leader described their common view that "any calling into question of the ABM treaty would bring danger and destabilization" for the rest of the world.

France, Russia and particularly China have their own axes to grind on this score. But Chirac touches on a genuine problem. The United States needs to show that it is not embarked on a selfish, self-protective policy of deterrence that disregards everyone else. The image being created feeds the efforts of Chirac, Jiang and others to reduce U.S. domination and create a "multipolar world."

A meaningful first step in a new U.S. approach would be an immediate unilateral reduction of 1,000 strategic warheads in the U.S. arsenal, with more cuts related to progress on a more verifiable test ban treaty, modest changes in the ABM regime worked out not only with Russia but also France and Britain and greater cooperation from other countries with U.S. efforts to contain the arsenals of rogue states.

The United States can go it alone in setting deterrence strategy and counterproliferation if it must. But Congress and the White House must not let unilateralism be the only option available to Americans. Like economics, security is a global matter now.