ARMS control is not a matter of military and technological calculation alone. It is every bit as much a matter of assessing the other side's intentions and trustworthiness. This is the case with SALT II. President Reagan's top aides in the defense, state, and arms control agencies insist that SALT II is for all intents and purposes dead -- and will be proved so this fall when the United States exceeds the unratified treaty's limits for aircraft-borne missiles. The President himself, however, keeps suggesting that there is time for the Soviets to come around on compliance or some other measure and to encourage the US to stick with the treaty's terms longer. The Defense Department, like all defense departments, says the US will henceforth determine its arms needs by its assessments of the ``military capability'' of the two sides.
Presidents, however, have to take other matters into account.
President Reagan does have a personal interest in achieving some kind of modus vivendi with the Soviets -- although nothing like d'etente. He would like to leave office with US-Soviet relations on a higher plane than they have been. He does not want to leave office with relations on a negative note -- even though he has stressed the negative so much throughout his political life.
The problem is the vagueness of what will satisfy the President's goals.
The Soviets have pushed arms control into the center of Washington-Moscow negotiation. Arms control would apparently give them the truest reading of President Reagan's intentions. For the American President, this poses difficulties. His administration, and to a degree he himself, is split on whether arms control agreements are in the best interests of the US.
For President Reagan, differences with the Soviets are as much matters of ideology and politics as they are matters of arms imbalances or nuclear overbuilding. Not only are the administration's arms control aims uncertain and in dispute, but arms control for them is not a wholly satisfying vehicle for managing the superpower tensions.
Hence the interest in summitry.
The Reagan administration seems to think that if the two sides can just talk, laying out their differences in plain view on the table, this could lead to an improved era in relations from which some modus vivendi could evolve. Whether it would lead to the deep cuts in nuclear arsenals that Mr. Reagan insists he wants, or to ``arms control without agreements'' that some of his advisers advocate, would remain to be seen. But for the President, the imagery would clearly suggest a constructive managing of relations that could satisfy his requirements for a positive historical image.
A summit, if announced before the '86 elections even if not held until later, would have a powerful effect on the voting outcome. It could be enough to guarantee the President a Republican Senate again in 1987. Similarly, a summit in '87 could have a powerful effect on the '88 election. But the risks are that the Soviets could pull another Afghanistan adventure. A broad agenda summit in '87 would favor the presidential candidacy of Vice-President George Bush -- which might not be to the liking of some of the President's backers on the GOP right.
The Soviets could hardly agree to a summit and then have the President turn the SALT II tables on them. One assumes that this point is under review in private correspondence between the two sides -- whatever is said in public. But at some point such analysis falls by the wayside.
The tenor of US-Soviet relations is very much under the power of President Reagan to decide. He sets the tone. The Soviets are fascinated with his political strength at the moment, as he swims against the tide of a second-term decline.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, however, must hold off the hard-liners in his own defense establishment. He cannot wait for the Reagan term to end. To allow US-Soviet relations to deteriorate could mean the election of a right-wing candidate in 1988. US politics is too tricky a game for the Soviets to play in. But Reagan may well be seen in Moscow as an individual who, if he ever made a deal, would intend to keep it.
In assessing a possible new modus vivendi with the Soviets, the President must rely on his own ability to read intangibles like trust and intentions. A facility with intangibles, rather than military or technological or economic numbers, has always been Reagan's strong suit. And it is here on the shoulders of the President's largely intuitive judgment -- more than in the pronouncements of his advisers or the protests of his adversaries -- that the fate of superpower negotiations chiefly sits.