IN his public proposal last month to rid the world of nuclear weapons by the year 2000, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev demonstrated that he too can play millennial politics with arms control. While the Reagan administration and allied governments officially welcomed Gorbachev's speech, they are not taking his vision of a nuclear-free world seriously. Nor, for the most part, are Western publics. A clever proposal of Gorbachev's, however, has elicited a positive response from the White House: Gorbachev has suggested removing intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) from NATO territory and from the European USSR while freezing SS-20 deployments in Asia -- a zero-plus variant of President Ronald Reagan's global zero option. Favorably disposed to the proposal, particularly since it seems not to be linked to strategic defenses, Reagan sent Ambassadors Paul Nitze and Edward Rowny to Europe and Asia to consult with allies on a US counteroffer.
The administration's counterproposal, endorsed by the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, reportedly calls for removal from Europe of all Soviet SS-20s and SS-4s and US Pershing II's and ground-launched cruise missiles. The USSR would also have to forgo insistence on freezing British and French nuclear systems and prohibiting the US transfer of nuclear weapons to the European allies.
Under the US proposal, however, the Soviets would be allowed to retain about half their 171 SS-20s east of the Urals, and the US would at least have the right to match that number. By permitting this disparity between US and Soviet intermediate-range missiles, the Reagan administration unintentionally risks playing into Moscow's hands.
Gorbachev's INF proposal is intended to achieve two longstanding Soviet objectives. Ever since West German rearmament in 1955, the Soviets have sought to denuclearize Europe. Trading off the 270 SS-20s and the odd SS-4s in the western USSR against cruise missiles and Pershing II's is simply the latest manifestation of this objective.
Actually, the Gorbachev offer and the emerging US proposal would enhance Soviet military superiority in Europe. Under the US proposal, the Soviets would still have, in the eastern USSR, a residual force of SS-20s. Furthermore, the US plan apparently fails to reduce short-range nuclear weapons deployed in East Germany and Czechoslovakia or strategic weapons (SS-11s and some SS-19s plus sea-launched ballistic missiles) targeted against Western Europe. Even without these systems, the Soviets would still enjoy an advantage in conventional forces.
The second long-term aim served by Moscow's INF proposal is to sow discord between the US and its allies and between the nuclear and nonnuclear members of the alliance. The French and British have reacted negatively to the Gorbachev proposal and the US counteroffer lest they attenuate flexible response, hence the nuclear linkage between the US and Western Europe (precisely what INF deployments were supposed to reinforce). Nonnuclear allies whose publics fiercely protested INF, notably West Germany and the Netherlands, might be more comfortable with the US position if it included the withdrawal of Soviet short-range missiles. But they would face the dilemma of having to upgrade their conventional force or publicly acknowledge their preference for nuclear deterrence.
Similarly, Japan reportedly has expressed misgivings.
Whether allied restiveness influences the President's position remains to be seen. There is probably an even chance that Mr. Reagan will proceed with his version of zero-plus. Or he could take the Pentagon's advice and desist from making a serious counteroffer to a Soviet position that is considered pure propaganda.
The first approach, favored by liberal arms control experts eager for progress in Moscow, could be a Pyrrhic victory because of its consequences for extended deterrence and, therefore, West European military security. The second approach, tactically wiser, is strategically unsound because it precludes the possibility of seizing opportunities for meaningful arms reductions that stabilize the nuclear balance. In either case, the Soviets will exact a political price from the alliance by placing the burden for arms control progress on the British and French without sacrificing their option to reject a US proposal that insufficiently constrains allied nuclear forces.
A third course would be to reinforce the extension of our nuclear deterrence, lessen strains on alliance political cohesion, and avoid falling into the Soviet trap of playing off Japanese and European security interests. The US could propose equal US-Soviet INF levels above zero, applied globally, coupled with removal of Soviet short-range missiles and an understanding, based on statements of President Mitterrand and Prime Minister Thatcher, that the French and British would consider ceilings on their nuclear forces provided there were substantial US-Soviet strategic reductions. Such a proposal would test whether Mr. Gorbachev is serious about arms control or merely playing millennial politics.
Hugh De Santis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.