London — The top arms control strategist for the United States, Paul Nitze, has set ``deterrence'' and ``stability'' as the central US goals in pursuing arms control and military strategy. In a major policy address here at the weekend, Mr. Nitze went part way toward allaying European fears about the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars,'' as it is popularly known.)
In the wake of his address Friday to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), European diplomats are waiting to see if Nitze is a lone wolf, or if his statements represent -- as they hope -- considered Reagan administration policy.
Nitze, arms control adviser to the US secretary of state, did not mention European misgivings about SDI expressed recently by the British and West German foreign ministers and other European leaders. But he was clearly addressing their concerns in assuring his European audience that:
President Reagan has specified that SDI will be discussed cooperatively with US allies -- and ``would be a matter for negotiation'' with the Soviets -- before any deployment decisions are taken.
Political considerations about preventing war -- rather than purely military considerations about minimizing the extent of catastrophe once a nuclear attack has occurred -- will govern US decisions about SDI and arms control.
The US will be concerned about European as well as its own security in pursuing SDI and arms control -- and will be concerned about preventing conventional as well as nuclear war.
Nitze's tone, which was welcomed by Europeans, differed markedly from the personal criticism of the British foreign secretary by US Assistant Secretary for Defense Richard Perle after Sir Geoffrey Howe publicly raised questions about the impact of SDI in mid-March.
Sir Geoffrey argued that a ``Maginot Line'' must not be created that could easily be countered by expanding offensive weapons to overwhelm SDI defense. (In the 1930s, the French set up their fortifications on the Maginot Line. The Germans skirted it and conquered France.)
He also said that the strategic implications of SDI for stability or instability must be thought through now, at the research stage, before some inexorable momentum builds up for future deployment, and that the US nuclear guarantee of Europe must be preserved at each stage of introducing SDI as a superpower defense.
Europeans at the private IISS dinner after Nitze's speech bore in on Nitze with Sir Geoffrey's questions, said sources who attended the dinner. In particular, they challenged Nitze's continued espousal of an eventual ``complete elimination of nuclear arms'' as a desirable goal. This, West Europeans think, could lead to a highly unstable situation and give Moscow free rein to exploit Soviet conventional superiority in Europe.
In his speech Nitze addressed all the various European misgivings, directly or indirectly. In so doing, he added significantly to his comprehensive statement of US arms control goals made in Philadelphia a month ago.
Thus, in London, Nitze set prevention of war through ``stability'' -- and especially through ``crisis stability'' -- as the goal of arms control negotiations and SDI development. In Philadelphia in February this concept was implicit, but not as explicit in Nitze's remarks. He defined ``crisis stability'' as ``reducing the incentives that a side might have in a crisis to strike first, or in peacetime to provoke a crisis that might lead to a military confrontation.''
In his comments Nitze treated ``deterrence'' as a much longer-term condition than has been implied by many Reagan administration spokesmen -- or by Nitze himself in Philadelphia. SDI was set in a context of placing more stress on defense within the deterrent balance -- not as substituting defense for offensive retaliation, as SDI advocates have often urged. Nitze repeatedly talked about physical defenses in a world without nuclear offensive weapons only as a distant, ``ultimate'' goal. ``Not only in the near term, but in both the transition and ultimate phases as well, deterrence would continue to provide the basis for the US-Soviet strategic relationship,'' he said.
At times Nitze's reference to any eventual SDI deployments sounded like a plea for point defense of missile sites to enhance stability -- rather than for the potentially destabilizing, grander goals of comprehensive antimissile defense sometimes advanced by SDI proponents. Nitze also assured any Soviet (and European) listeners that the US is not secretly seeking some destabilizing nuclear ``superiority'' through SDI. And he treated the Soviets as rational actors with whom the US could hope to agree on arms control.
``The Soviet leaders are not mad; they look to their interests through eyes trained in the Marxist-Leninist approach,'' he said in a context that showed respect, not condescension. ``Their approach is usually relatively understandable and predictable, more so, perhaps, than the approach of Western governments.''
Nitze also offered the Soviets a reasonable definition of verification in any arms control agreement. Rather than talking of intrusive on-site inspection and verification in the absolute -- an approach the Soviets (and Europeans) regard as a deliberate setting of impossible terms in order to kill arms control -- Nitze said only that verification must be good enough to prevent secret achieving of ``an exploitable military advantage.'' That is, a regime would need to be set up in which ``cheating would have to be conducted on a large scale -- of too great a magnitude to pass unnoticed before appropriate countermeasures could be taken.''