The pressure of West European opinion forced the Reagan administration to open negotiations with the Soviet Union in Geneva last November on intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. And now the pressure of American opinion is forcing the administration to start negotiations on strategic nuclear weapons.
But stalemate may characterize both sets of negotiations.
In Geneva, the United States has offered a plausible-sounding but wholly one-sided and non-negotiable proposal, the ''zero option.'' It focuses exclusively on one type of weapon -- intermediate-range land-based missiles -- where the Soviets have a substantial advantage. The Soviets would be required to dismantle 600 missiles. The US would dismantle none. It has no land-based missiles of this range.
In the strategic arms reduction talks, it now appears that the US will follow a similar pattern. The US proposal will require severe Soviet reductions in a category of weapons -- intercontinental ballistic missile forces -- where the Soviets have a substantial advantage. The Soviets will be required to restructure their forces, increasing the proportion based at sea. And there will be no limitation of weapons on bombers, where the US also has the advantage.
The administration's tactics are all too evident: get talks started on both intermediate and strategic nuclear arms to deflect pressure from the powerful nuclear freeze movement; stand pat on these initial proposals; and press on with the arms buildup on the excuse that more arms are needed to negotiate for fewer arms.
The arms buildup includes three new and highly accurate ballistic missiles, which would make the nuclear balance extremely unstable in a crisis, and a sea-launched cruise missile, limitations on which may not be verifiable. This small and inexpensive cruise missile could radically accelerate the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world. Arms control would be dead.
In spite of these possible consequences, the administration's tactics may succeed -- unless there is a full exposure of the facts about the nuclear balance and vigorous public debate about nuclear arms policy.
On Nov. 18 last year, President Reagan said the Soviets had a six-to-one advantage over the US in intermediate-range nuclear weapons. This is not true. Three-fourths of the Soviet weapons Mr. Reagan was counting are fighter/inter-ceptor aircraft, many with a range too short to qualify as intermediate and many -- perhaps most -- with only a conventional role.
On March 31 this year, Mr. Reagan said the intermediate-range missile balance in Europe was 300 to 0 in favor of the Soviets. (Mr. Reagan was referring to the Soviet SS-20; he did not include 300 obsolete SS-4s and SS-5s). But 100 of these 300 missiles are targeted only against China, and if one counts British, French, and American NATO-assigned submarine-based missiles, then the East-West balance is 200 to 184.
The Reagan administration's preoccupation with the theoretical vulnerability of the American land-based strategic force of Minuteman missiles has blinded it to an important fact: the fixed land-based missiles of both superpowers -- Russian as well as American -- are becoming vulnerable to a preemptive strike, and these missiles constitute 70 percent of the total Soviet strategic force and only 25 percent of the total American force.
The Soviets have more cause for concern than do we. Indeed, at the present time, we could -- in theory -- destroy over twice as much of their total force as they could of ours in preemptive strikes at the land-based forces.
There are arms control solutions to these two problems of most concern to the Reagan administration -- the alleged imbalance in Europe and the theoretical vulnerability of the Minuteman missile force.
Solution No. 1: The imbalance in Europe is a bookkeeping imbalance, not a real one. It can be corrected by simply counting all intermediate-range missiles regardless of nationality and whether launched from the sea or from the land. Account would be taken of British and French forces, as recommended by the West German Social Democratic Party at its recent meeting in Munich. The Soviets would have to dismantle all their old missiles and not redeploy any of those targeted on China. The US would have to undertake not to deploy any additional ones.
Solution No. 2: The simplest way to lessen the vulnerability of land-based missiles is to reduce the number of weapons aimed at them -- a reduction in the ratio of weapons to targets. (The administration's proposal would not reduce this ratio.) Thus, Mr. Reagan's priority goal in strategic arms negotiations with the Soviets should be substantial across-the-board cuts in missiles with multiple warheads and a ban on new missiles of this type, like MX and Trident II. Limitations on land-based weapons where the Soviet Union has the advantage would have to be matched by limitations on air- and sea-based weapons, including weapons on bombers and sea-launched cruise missiles, where the US has the advantage.
These two solutions would require a sharp change in direction by the Reagan administration. But if the Soviets agreed to them within the context of an amended SALT II agreement, we would have achieved the twin goals of significant reductions and greater stability.