If you lived in a world whose opinion of your behavior ranged from concerned to downright paranoid, the last thing you’d want to do would be to make more dangerous new weapons – especially if they’re nuclear ones. And yet I opened my paper today to find the headline, “Door Opened for New Era of Nuclear Arms.” Bush appears to be opening the door, with the Senate as the doorman.

The U.S. has always honorably preached the gospel of nonproliferation. Since the Cold War, when the Soviets and we had around 40,000 nuclear weapons each, we have slowly but steadily reduced that to the low thousands. We spent millions to pay the salaries of the tens of thousands of engineers, scientists and workers of Soviet weapons programs to discourage them from seeking employment elsewhere.

Our efforts have led to the peaceful abandonment of nuclear programs by Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina. And the problem with Iraq was that Saddam wouldn’t give up his nuclear program (not chemical and biological ones, which they’d had for years). It is nuclear arms that have now put the spotlight on North Korea and Iran.

The first problem with proliferation is that the more countries that have nukes, the more likely it is that other countries will also want nukes. This creates domino balance-of-power issues: If North Korea gets a nuke, and China already has them, there is enormous pressure on Japan and South Korea to follow suit. If Iran builds nukes, and Israel has some, why can’t Egypt and Syria have them?

Secondly, though some countries might be conservative in their intentions, individuals and groups might not be, so a proliferating world increases the risk that one day a nuke will fall into the hands of a fanatic.

But now Bush wants to reverse the 10-year ban on nuclear development and subsidize researchers looking at smaller, battlefield bombs or bunker-busters. Even if we’re the only contestants, this inaugurates a new nuclear arms race, once a competition for quantity and size but now a search for wider applicability.

It also seems to concede defeat on nonproliferation efforts, in effect saying that they don’t work as well as we’d like, so the only option is to stay ahead of the game.

This move follows the administration’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, both of which have already made other countries edgy.

Russia is already somewhat alienated, and North Korea – already sufficiently paranoid – might panic. Sure, we can continue demanding the nuclear disarmament of hostile countries like North Korea and Iran, but we should expect less to listen, for we damage our image as the proponent of a less-nuclear world.

If our action in Iraq was intended as a message to rogue regimes that illicit nuclear programs will not go unpunished (which it was), this new move – developing more agile, usable nukes – might send the opposite message: Better get nukes if you want to buy immunity from an Iraq-like fate.

The stigma surrounding nukes was always that their capacity for destruction was so cataclysmic that their use was unthinkable. Now we want to make them “tactical,” remolding their once abstract, doomsday quality into a form that – as far as most are concerned – can only make their use more likely. There are few things more worth doing than preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. We’re no North Korea, and our efforts have more than any other nation led to nuclear disarmament, but this recent Bush administration act nonetheless challenges that logic.

Joey Tartakovsky is a Daily Nexus columnist.