Picking up the pieces after Iceland

DESPITE the stalemate in Iceland, both sides have left sweeping proposals on the table and reaffirmed their readiness to continue to negotiate on them. The question remains as to which of them would be both feasible and beneficial. Which will contribute to reducing the risk of war, enhancing stability in crises, and mitigating arms competition? One goal espoused by both leaders -- to rid the world of nuclear weapons -- seems Utopian. That will surely not be practical, for many reasons. Since we cannot disinvent or totally abolish nuclear weapons, the best hope is to reduce and control them. What are the openings that should be pursued?

INF: both leaders agreed to cut medium-range missiles to zero in Europe and to retain 100 in Soviet Asia and the United States. That should be completed by agreeing on verification and balancing or reducing tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Some NATO allies are concerned, but the INF weapons provide no significant military benefit or assurance of US support that cannot be afforded by other means.

Strategic offensive weapons: The two sides agreed to cut strategic offensive weapons and warheads of all kinds by a nominal 50 percent (actually 30 to 40 percent) within five years. In the following five years, should they seek to eliminate all strategic offensive nuclear systems, including bombers and cruise missiles (as Mikhail Gorbachev suggested, and President Reagan concurred), or to ban all ballistic missiles (as the President formally proposed)?

The banning of all strategic offensive nuclear weapons in 10 years would raise extremely serious problems. It would be hard to verify. With the loss of the US nuclear umbrella, NATO would depend essentially on conventional forces for its defense and would have to build them up substantially, unless a better balance could be negotiated. To some degree the change might increase the risks of conventional conflict in Western Europe under some future conditions, but such a war, if protracted, would surely provoke the revival of strategic nuclear weapons.

Getting rid of only ballistic missiles would also be a radical change, but should not entail the same risks, and would have real benefits. A world where the strategic deterrent was based on limited numbers of bombers and cruise missiles should be safer and more stable. The nuclear deterrent would still contribute to maintaining peace, but the five or six hours needed to reach targets (instead of 30 minutes) would reduce the dangers of accident, miscalculation, fear of first strike, and short reaction times. NATO members would be under more pressure to improve their conventional capabilities, but the necessary measures are within their fiscal means and should be taken anyway.

Negotiating such a regime will face serious obstacles. Balancing US advantages in bombers and cruise missiles against the dense Soviet air defense system (which the US lacks) would not be easy. Nor will agreeing on schedules for dismantling. And Britain, France, and China will resist strongly giving up their small but cherished strategic missile systems.

Some of the benefits could be had by a more limited agreement to phase out fixed land-based missiles, which are the most menacing and most vulnerable strategic weapons. But since the Soviets rely so heavily on these, a balanced agreement would require the US to compensate in some way.

SDI: The Iceland summit finally broke down on the issue of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Both sides were prepared to abide by the ABM Treaty for 10 years -- but which version did the US mean? The split was over what could be done during that period and afterward. Apparently Mr. Gorbachev insisted that the US comply with the ``narrow'' (original) version of the treaty and confine research on space-based systems (or elements) to the laboratory. The President was adamant that either party be free to deploy after the 10 years, and meanwhile to conduct wider research and testing -- possibly based on the new US interpretation of the ABM Treaty, which would virtually remove any restraints on space-based research, testing, and development short of deployment.

SDI should not be allowed to block a radical reduction in offensive nuclear missiles. The Senate should explicitly repudiate the loose reinterpretation of the treaty, which is wholly inconsistent with the treaty as submitted to the Senate for its approval 13 years ago, and approved and ratified. The record on that is crystal clear.

Within that framework it should be feasible to agree with the USSR on just what research, testing, and other activities are permitted under the treaty. They would not necessarily be limited to the laboratory, but would almost surely exclude some of the actions now planned. Qualified scientists insist that the next 10 years could be fruitfully spent in exploring problems within such limits.

In practical terms, Gorbachev could afford to be relaxed about the right to deploy after the 10 years. If strategic ballistic missiles were gone by then, that would undermine the case for deploying SDI on a large scale, even if rapid technical progress had been made. A very limited system would surely be adequate for any desired insurance against cheating on ballistic missiles.

If the two sides are serious, they have a chance to work out a historic package for arms control -- but the obstacles to agreement are still formidable.

Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for nearly 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.

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