Most People now concede that with the thousands of Argentinetroops and the closing circle of British warships, the Falklands crisis is serious. But consider for a moment how it would seem if this confrontation were occuring three or five years from now, or whatever small number of years it will take Argentina to make its nuclear weapons.
Argentina does not now have a nuclear capability. But the Argentine government is building facilities and making statements that clearly indicate active --even urgent--preparations for assembling atomic bombs. The current government has refused to renounce "peaceful" nuclear explosions. In what might be a hint of preparations for nuclear tests, a high level official recently went so far as to say that Argentina might want to use nuclear explosions for mining or canal construction--uses long since abandoned by the nuclear powers.
What would be different if Argentina already had the bomb? Here is a government that took what it knew to be a rash step in order to divert public attention from economic and political problems it can-not solve. It has fanned patriotic sentiment to the point where it must find a face saving solution or be kicked out of office. Is this a government that would shrink from declaring: "We will use every resource at our disposal to defend the Malvinas."
Nuclear weapons might not be of much direct military value. In fact the current situation is a useful reminder to the nuclear powers that their nuclear weapons are of little help in meeting the military threats most likely to arise. But if Argentina could not drop an atomic weapon on London, or gain any advantage by using one against the British fleet, it might hope to gain negotiating advantage, and perhaps more, with a little nuclear saber rattling.
The level of international alarm would rise by several degrees. Argentina's neighbors would be more than a little agitated. The possibility of Russian involvement, however peripheral, would at once become far more serious.
Among the other near or would-be nuclear states --Brazil, Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, South Africa, Israel, Taiwan and others--how many might face domestic unrest equal to that in Argentina today? How many others might be similarly tempted to focus attention elsewhere? How many face traditional foes, have lost territory or hope to avenge a past wrong? How many other places or causes still obscure could spark such an "unlikely" crisis?
Non-proliferation is a difficult subject, full of obscure technologies and tedious jargon. The effort to curb or inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons to still more stalls a futile endeavor that succeeds only in making trouble between the United States and its allies. It is too easy to lose sight of the central fact, of which the Falklands episode is a timely reminder --that the more nuclear nations there are, the more likely it is that some day, one or many of these weapons, will be used.