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TWO YEARS AGO, the world watched as an international military coalition drove Saddam Hussein's armed forces from Kuwait.

After the war, world leaders solemnly pledged to curb the runaway arms trade that had fueled the conflict.

As President George Bush told a joint session of Congress in March 1991, "It would be tragic if the nations of the Middle East were now, in the wake of war, to embark on another arms race."

A lot has changed in the past two years.

Ethnic and religious conflicts have erupted into warfare in Somalia and former Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union no longer exists. India, one of the most durable democracies in the developing world, may be on the brink of civil war.

Through all this change, one thing has remained depressingly consistent: The world's industrial powers are all too willing to sell weapons to the highest bidder, with little concern for how they may ultimately be used.

So far, the pledges of restraint that were so strongly asserted after the gulf war have amounted to all talk and no action.

Far from forging a "new world order," there is now a real danger that the world community will descend into a period of unparalleled violence and chaos.

Without a concerted effort to stem the proliferation of advanced arms, it may be only a matter of time before nuclear weapons are used to settle a local or regional conflict, setting off a political and military chain reaction that could spark World War III.

Exporting weapons is a big business: Worldwide sales of rifles, tanks, bombs, missiles, fighter aircraft and other lethal weapons of war exceed $50 billion annually.

It is also an extremely lucrative business. More than three dozen major arms-supplying nations and thousands of weapons manufacturers, large and small, are vying to sell to customers in more than 150 countries.

From Moscow to Washington, and from Riyadh to Beijing, careers -- and fortunes -- have been made selling weapons.

Curbing proliferation will mean standing up to the powerful political and economic interests that benefit from business as usual in the arms trade.

There are many players in the trade, but a few major suppliers dominate the market.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the top five arms-supplying nations -- the United States, China, France, Great Britain and the former Soviet Union -- control more than 85 percent of the world market for major combat systems.

The Third World's thirst for arms and military technology is even more concentrated. In 1991 just three suppliers made 85 percent of all weapons exports to developing nations, according to the Congressional Research Service. The United States led the pack with 57 percent of arms sales to the Third World, trailed by the former Soviet Union at 20 percent and Great Britain at 8 percent.

China, widely criticized as a "rogue proliferator, had surprisingly modest levels of total weapons exports, accounting for less than 2 percent of all arms sales to the Third World in 1991.

If the arms trade were about only money and markets, citizens and governments could afford to ignore it. But there is much more than money at issue -- hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake.

More often than not, the weapons are used in ways that the original supplier never intended.

Soviet arms supplied to Yugoslavia during the Cold War are being used to kill people long after the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, fueling a protracted civil war.

U.S. guns and military trucks that were given to Somalia during the 1980s in the name of fostering "stability" allowed rival warlords to prolong a state of armed chaos.

Even former President Ronald Reagan's widely celebrated tactic of arming anti-communist rebels has come back to haunt U.S. policymakers. By now, the CIA has established a special "buy-back" program to try to get Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas in Afghanistan to return hundreds of U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles, which are "the ultimate terrorist weapon," according to Sen. Dennis Deconcini of Arizona.

Last but not least, the whole history of arms sales to the Middle East since World War II has been a testament to the futility of using weapons to foster political or strategic stability.

Now that there is no longer competition between the superpowers to use weapons sales as tools for exerting political influence in the Third World, strategic analysts such as Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies have suggested that this is an opportune moment for the United States to get out of the business of selling arms to the Third World altogether.

Unfortunately, this proposal and others like it have been overwhelmed by new economic incentives to export weapons and political thinking left over from the Cold War. There is tremendous pressure from weapons manufacturers to find new export markets to pick up the slack left by declining military budgets.

So far the United States has been the big winner in this new rush to win foreign orders, arranging more than $35 billion in new arms sales with nations in the Middle East and Asia in the past two years alone.

But defense firms in Western Europe also want their "fair share" of the Third World arms market. And Russian President Boris Yeltsin is under increasing pressure from his defense establishment to promote weapons exports as a way to keep workers on the job.

The historic opportunity to use the end of the Cold War as a first step toward curbing the arms trade is being squandered in a mad scramble for short-term profits.

Starting in July 1991, the "Big Five" arms-exporting nations began a series of discussions on limiting weapons sales to regions of potential conflict in the Third World. And in December 1991, the United Nations agreed to establish an international arms register to track and publicize weapons exports.

So far, these initiatives have been hampered by an excess of political and bureaucratic infighting and a failure of political imagination.

But if President Clinton is serious about his recent pledge to promote a "long-term effort to reduce the proliferation of weapons of destruction in the hands of people who might use them in very destructive ways," he should move decisively to breathe new life into the Big Five talks and the U.N. arms register.

New economic incentives must be created to reduce the demand for arms in developing nations and the pork-barrel pressures in the supplier nations to sell weapons.

Any plan that imposes limits on developing nations but avoids pressures on the major industrial powers to reduce their overstocked arsenals will not get widespread adherence.

If we do not take arms-restraint measures now, we may, in a few years, regret our failure to grasp a chance that had so much promise.

WILLIAM D. HARTUNG is director of the Arms Transfer Control Project at the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research.

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