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START starts: warm opening despite cold war

By Elizabeth PondStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 1982



Bonn

When United States negotiator Edward Rowny shook hands with Soviet representative Viktor Karpov in Geneva June 29, the strategic arms control dialogue resumed after a hiatus of three years.

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In the interim detente had soured, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, the Polish free trade union Solidarity had risen and fallen, the US had refused to ratify SALT II and had elected a president who valued American military strength over arms control, the antinuclear movement had burgeoned in the West, and the Soviet Union had moved closer to its succession struggle.

It was one of those historic occasions that attentive publics welcome, on balance, but don't really celebrate.

The first meeting of the chief arms control negotiators, General Rowny told reporters afterward, was ''cordial,'' ''businesslike,'' ''frank,'' and ''earnest.'' It established the ''modalities'' (biweekly meetings, alternating between the Soviet mission and the US mission's botanic building). It left substantive business to the first plenary session of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) teams June 30.

It also gave Rowny an opportunity to read to Karpov a letter from President Reagan wishing his chief negotiator godspeed in ''one of the most important tasks of our age.'' In the letter Reagan called the START negotiations ''an historic opportunity'' to reverse their arms confrontation and ''enhance deterrence and stability.''

The last time the two superpowers came together in the strategic arms field was in Vienna on June 18, 1979. On that summer day Jimmy Carter, then US president, and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev signed the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreement (SALT II) that had been under negotiation for almost seven years.

That unratified treaty has been in limbo ever since, with presidential candidate Reagan calling it ''fatally flawed.'' The current START negotiator, General Rowny, had quit the American SALT delegation a few days before the signing to protest what he regarded as Soviet advantages in it.

Will START I fare any better than SALT II? Timing suggests that it can't. Political will suggests that it just might.

The crucial element in timing is the proximity both of US presidential elections and the Soviet succession.

Twice before, in 1980 and 1976, US presidential campaigns overwhelmed the politically sensitive SALT II in the US. And the highly complex START I, which aspires to the first superpower agreement on radical reductions of existing weapons (rather than simply ceilings or marginal cuts), can hardly be negotiated in the little more than a year before the 1984 campaign opens and again roils the arms control debate. SALT I took three long years to negotiate; SALT II, 61/ 2 longer years.

On the Soviet side the impending succession makes it even less likely that the leadership could commit itself to radical new departures in arms control. Western Kremlinologists generally regard the very conservative consensus politics of the present Kremlin gerontocracy as resistant to innovation.

And while the mainstream of Kremlinologists think that ''detente'' has been sufficiently institutionalized in the Soviet Union to survive the end of Brezhnev's almost two-decade rule, they do not think that the expected three- to five-year power struggle will encourage major foreign policy initiative in the post-Brezhnev period.