Realism on arms

More heat than light has surrounded the Soviet-American talks on medium-range missiles in Europe. Both sides have engaged in a fair amount of public sparring , with Moscow trying to persuade the West Germans to accept its alternative to the US ''zero option'' and Washington countering with a public relations campaign to warn of Soviet treachery. But through all the propaganda and posturing can be seen glimmers of hope. The Russians appear to want an accord, and President Reagan - following the shakeup of his disarmament bureaucracy - is sounding conciliatory these days.

''I am determined to explore every possibility for equitable agreements to reduce the arsenals and the risks of war and to strengthen the foundation for peace,'' he said upon sending his nuclear arms negotiators back to Geneva. And Paul Nitze, after the storm generated by disclosure of the exploratory agreement worked out by him and his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky, also hinted at flexibility in the US position on Euromissiles if the Russians came up with some ''give.''

How much flexibility is the question. And how soon? Washington is concerned about the impact of any shift in the US position on the German elections in early March. If the US backs off its zero-zero proposal earlier rather than later, will this help Chancellor Kohl (facing a strong domestic antinuclear movement) or the opposition Social Democratic Party (which has already stepped back from that option)? It can be argued both ways, perhaps, but certainly the US must be careful to avoid any action which might be interpreted as interference in the German election. Not only because it has no right to interfere but because it must be prepared to maintain good relations with whoever wins.

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At some point, however, the US will have to be more flexible if it wants to achieve an arms agreement and head off the possibility of political turmoil in Europe, where peace movements are gathering force. Even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, no dove on defense, feels that the zero option proposal - under which the US would agree not to deploy 572 new US medium-range missiles in Europe if the Russians dismantled all their 600 missiles - will not succeed. Indeed in some European capitals, including London and Bonn, there now is talk about some kind of ''interim solution'' under which the US would install fewer missiles in return for sharp reductions on the Soviet side.

Negotiations for an agreement are driven more by political than military considerations, for the Russians have long had nuclear weapons targeted on Western Europe. But Moscow, by its misbegotten decision to replace older missiles with the multiwarheaded SS-20, has aroused concern and triggered a NATO response. It is clear that the US and its European partners must not abandon their resolve to redress the perceived imbalance.

Yet it is also clear that Moscow will never accept the zero option, which would mean giving up the forces it has had in place for a long time now and ignoring meantime the British and French nuclear missiles, American fighter-bombers stationed in Britain, US ships carrying nuclear weapons, and the submarines assigned to NATO. In fact some Western analysts, including SALT II negotiator Paul Warnke, believe that a way out of the impasse lies in integrating the talks on Euromissiles with the negotiations over intercontinental nuclear arms, so that the total arsenals of the superpowers can be taken into account. That seems a sensible course.

In any case, as the Nitze-Kvitsinsky duo resume their efforts and as Vice-President George Bush heads for European capitals, the watchword will be American flexibility. The US may be looking for ''give'' in the Soviet position , but Europeans will be equally, if not more, interested in signs of ''give'' from the Reagan administration. For the sake of nuclear arms control and European political stability, it is to be hoped they will not be disappointed.

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