Reagan-Gorbachev duel: risks of delay

RONALD Reagan has just 2 years until his successor is chosen. Mikhail Gorbachev presumably has much longer before his replacement arrives. So it should not be surprising that Mr. Reagan seeks to speed the pace of superpower bargaining. By announcing he would abandon SALT II treaty limitations on strategic weapons later this year, the American President resorted to a shock tactic against Mr. Gorbachev's strategic planners.

The Reagan threat is high-stakes brinkmanship. If the tactic doesn't work, the US President will see the window in which he can use the results of his nearly six years of arms buildup to bargain for a historic arms reduction begin to close.

The Reagan team appears to be willing to take that risk for the possibility of a big payoff. (Hawks among them are willing to take the risk for its own sake.) There would certainly be such a payoff if Politburo leaders should accept a compromise deal on both strategic offense and defense. That could include long-range and medium-range missile reduction, and allowable ``star wars'' research.

Moscow's leader at the Geneva arms talks, Viktor Karpov, has offered new details to flesh out Mr. Gorbachev's generalized speech proposing 50 percent cuts in nuclear missiles in Europe as a step toward a vague zero-nuclear-weapons future. Both sides claim to be aiming toward such a zero option. Neither really is.

It remains to be seen whether the Karpov elaboration is the bargaining step the White House-Defense-State planners have been watching for since last September.

What does seem certain is that while time presses the Reagan team, economics press Gorbachev and company.

Soviet production figures for the four months preceding the Chernobyl power plant explosion must have looked tantalizingly good for Kremlin leaders. Fertilizer output was up 11 percent over the previous year's period; steel up 8 percent (although tapering off by April); metal-cutting tools up 14 percent; cement up 8 percent; tractors up 6 percent; electricity up 4 percent; natural gas up 7 percent; meat up 8 percent. Even the laggard petroleum industry showed response to Gorbachev's personal badgering, turning in a 2 percent increase for the four-month period (rising to 2.5 percent for April).

Harvard's Russian Research Center Newsletter, which watches these monthly production figures, terms the growth ``impressive.'' It points out that Soviet planners are not erecting Potemkin statistics. On the contrary, the mood of self-criticism persists, and the production increase announcements are accompanied by warnings that the figures for the first months of 1985 may have been unusually low because of persistently harsh weather.

But specialists believe the cuts in power supply associated with the Chernobyl accident will dent this encouraging display of Gorbanomics when the May figures become available shortly.

The hard-driving general secretary and his closest advisers face a dilemma. The growth of the economy in the 15 months since he took office is encouraging enough to tempt them to proceed on course without resorting to more basic economic reforms of the Chinese type. But in the long run that lack of reform would restrict economic growth.

Meanwhile, if electric power growth is hampered by a rein on nuclear power plants, vital growth in the machine tool industry would be slowed. That growth is central to Gorbachev's plans. And that, in turn, might increase the temptation to strike a bargain on arms in order to concentrate more resources on the sinews of retooling.

Another factor in the equation facing Kremlin tacticians is their assessment of the strength of America's position. Gorbachev may be tempted to strike a deal in order to get on with his own massive retooling plans. But he must be almost as strongly inclined to wait and see if Washington's NATO allies and the Congress won't undercut the SALT-abandonment tactic.

Before Gorbachev took office, the Soviet Union had achieved a kind of negative grand slam. Its policies had simultaneously alienated Western Europe, the US, Japan, and China -- a risky position. Recently Washington has seemed bent on a similar negative grand slam. In short order it has irritated Western Europe, Japan, Mexico, and Canada by assorted military and economic moves.

Such family quarrels are usually cyclical. They seem unlikely to change fundamentals. But they could affect the timing of Kremlin responses. And the White House timetable calls for summit No. 2 to take place before the end of 1986. It also calls for the summit to steer clear of the US midterm elections. Those elections look increasingly important to Reagan in foreign-policy as well as domestic-policy terms. If the President should encounter traditional second-midterm losses, Gorbachev might conclude that the new Congress will slow the pace of the Reagan arms buildup to the point where an arms deal isn't urgent. (Democratic Congressman Dante Fascell, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee tried to disabuse Kremlin leaders of that notion when he was in Moscow last winter.)

The second and third summits won't have much meaning if US-Soviet understandings on offensive and defensive strategic arms are not part of the package, along with trade and other matters.

A scenario can be drawn in which the superpowers suddenly strike a bargain as late as 1987. But that is unlikely if they don't begin to move closer to a deal in the next six months.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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