Negotiating with the Russians on arms control was not a high priority of President Reagan when he came into office. He did not oppose such talks in principle. But he felt they would be inappropriate until the United States had put its military house in order. It is therefore noteworthy that the US and the Soviet Union have agreed to begin talks to pave the way for full-scale negotiations on limiting medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe.
The news is heartening. It shows that President Reagan, like his Republican and Democratic predecessors, recognizes that nuclear arms negotiation is not a sign of weakness and in fact will bolster Western security.
The mood in Western Europe, of course, has had much to do with educating the new US administration. In 1979 the NATO allies agreed, at US urging, to deploy 572 American medium-range cruise missiles and Pershing- II missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet deployment of the powerful SS-20s targeted on Western Europe. In turn, the US agreed to enter negotiations with Moscow on mutual reductions of these arms. The new American President was not keen on following through on this US pledge quickly. But the growing resistance in Europe to stationing of the American weapons -- and the political problems the issue is causing for such key leaders as Helmut Schmidt -- clearly signalled Mr. Reagan he had no choice. Pursuing arms control is the price he must pay for NATO's decision to accept the new US weapons.
In this connection, it is ironic that Mr. Reagan now finds the new Socialist government of France among the strongest supporters of the NATO plan. French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson sternly denounced the Soviet Union during his visit to Washington, characterizing the Soviet missile buildup as "a change in the global balance of forces in the world." This must have been music to the President's ears -- and without doubt eye- opening coming from a left-wing source.
If most Europeans have a realistic appreciation of the Soviet threat, however , they understand the folly of an unrelenting superpower arms race. They know that neither side could win it and that it could serve only to raise the threshold of danger of a nuclear war. Moreover, the sheer cost of such a race would be economically ruinous. Beyond mere negotiations over theater nuclear weapons, therefore, West European leaders are eager for a resumption of the strategic arms talks.
Here again the Reagan administration came into office relegating SALT to the back burner. Soviet bahavior, the President argues, has to improve before the US is willing to sit down and talk about arms control again. Yet, under the allies' prodding, there appears to be movement on this front as well. The unratified SALT II treaty is under intensive study in Washington with a view to reopening talks at some point down the road. From the words of US officials these days one detects a more moderate stand. Perhaps budget-conscious bureaucrats are discovering just how big a financial burden an arms race would be.
The question is more than one of money, however.It is a matter of making the world a stabler and safer place. Increasingly we hear voices these days warning of the madness of producing more and more nuclear warheads. Today the US has some 9,000 of them; the USSR has at least 6,000. Together the two sides have explosive power equal to a million Hiroshima atomic bombs. Recently George Kennan, former US diplomat, dramatized the world's nuclear dilemma in an impassioned speech calling for a 50 percent reduction in the superpowers' arsenals. Now comes still another voice -- that of former US Ambassador to Moscow Thomas Watson Jr. -- pleading for a return to the negotiating table.
Mr. Watson is no "dove." He is a corporate businessman who served at the center of Soviet communism and has no illusions about the Soviet Union. Yet, in a commencement speech at Harvard, he challenged the conceptions that there is such a thing as a nuclear victory; that strategic superiority is attainable; that such superiority would assure safety; that the Russians cannot be trusted to keep an agreement; or that anyone who favors an end to the arms race is "soft-headed" on defense or on communism.
"We cannot wait for improved Soviet behavior around the world, or for better US-Soviet relations," Mr. Watson declared. "Control of strategic arms is not a concession to the Soviets. It must not be linked to irrelevant issues.Those who urge delay take an awesome responsibility on their shoulders."
These are words President Reagan would do well to heed. The actions of his administration indicate he is listening.