Geneva — Advocates of arms control can't quite believe it. Suddenly, it looks as if everything they had been hoping for may be falling into place, and deep cuts in superpower nuclear arsenals may be possible for the first time in the nuclear era. The reasons for this optimism:
Both superpowers now need a break from the arms race. The Soviet Union must overhaul its creaky economy and society, and taxpayers in the United States are finally weary of ideological confrontation and open-ended sacrifice of butter for guns.
Both superpowers are now disillusioned by the waning political utility of nuclear weapons. The Kremlin makes this explicit in its ``new thinking''; American hawks make it implicit in the new priority they now place on reducing offensive strategic weapons. (American doves experienced this disillusionment in the 1960s under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; moderates experienced it in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon and d'etente.)
Both the American and Soviet leaders finally seem to see arms control as a potential mutual political victory rather than a sellout by one of them.
For years arms controllers have argued that these very points constitute the realities of the nuclear impasse. Their case has often fallen on deaf ears, however, and they have bemoaned the time lag in political perception of what they regard as fundamental facts. Timing quirks made agreement difficult
They have regretted as well the quirks of timing, which have often made one side ready for arms control just when the other side was not. Arms control requires a perception of basic theoretical common interest in limiting nuclear weapons. And in an arms race that proceeds by uneven spurts rather than stately progression, arms control requires the rare political moment when both sides feel that there is rough equality - and that they have more to gain by limiting their own as well as their adversary's arsenals than by unilaterally ``catching up'' with the rival or even surging ahead to momentary ``superiority,'' however marginal and ephemeral.
Two weeks ago - even one week ago - the discouraged arms controllers were saying that the conjunction of perceptions and timing was dismal.
In Washington, hard-liners held the upper hand in a Reagan administration that was in utter disarray from the Iran-contra affair. They were ramming through an accelerated testing program in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'') that was designed to scuttle both the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the arms control based on it.
In Moscow, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, while he evidenced some interest in arms control and had consolidated power remarkably swiftly in his two years at the top, still faced entrenched opposition at home and looked as if he would be fully occupied with the domestic revolution he was trying to instigate. The `deus ex machina' of SDI
Enter SDI, this time not as the sworn enemy of arms control, as it is often seen by both fans and foes, but as deus ex machina that forced some fundamental rethinking on the part of the Soviets. Enter also the Iran fiasco, not as crippler of the Reagan administration, but as purge of the discredited ideologues in the administration who saw the world in black and white and thought the only way for right to prevail in the world was by American force of arms.
In this sense the traditional Russian awe and fear of Western technology may have been the least part of the Soviets' fierce reaction to SDI and their sometimes frantic efforts to stop it. At a deeper level SDI - in propelling Washington's thinking in the direction of a typical Soviet approach to international relations as a matter of unrelenting struggle, a ``zero-sum'' game in which one side wins and the other loses, and there is little room for overriding common interests with everyone winning - held up a mirror to the Soviets that forced them to look hard at the consequences of their own attitudes. It profoundly disturbed their habitual Leninist assumptions that periods of d'etente are only breathing spaces before the struggle resumes between political systems that are mortal enemies.
The mocking symbol of all this was the somersault of both superpowers on their interpretation of the ABM Treaty. American hard-liners adopted all the old Soviet arguments from the 1970s debate in order to squeeze out of the treaty prohibitions on strategic defense and stabilization of the offensive-defensive balance. The aim of the American hard-liners, like the aim of the Soviets in the 1970s, was to surge ahead of the adversary by unilateral means. But the Soviets, suddenly seeing that their old attitudes could just as well lead to American as to Soviet advantage, however temporary, began reiterating all the old American arguments of the 1970s in favor of stability and predictability in the arms race. Iran-contra discredits gung-ho action
At the same time - or rather, in a much more compressed time frame, from November of last year through the Tower report of last week - the Iran-contra affair discredited in the US the type of gung-ho, can-do military wheeling and dealing that American hard-liners so envied in the traditional Soviet repertoire. It also discredited the 19th-century type of adulation of military power that has been much more characteristic of the Soviet than of the American approach in the nuclear era. So rapidly did this occur that it cleaned out top administration actors with this frame of mind by the time the Soviets finally moved gingerly toward a ``grand compromise'' last weekend by again splitting off intermediate-range from strategic arms control. At the same time it left President Reagan in place, sufficiently unharmed by the scandal to lead his administration - if the trend continues - to a potentially new era of combining cooperation with confrontation in East-West relations.
Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island and Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska both articulated this hope at a press conference here Monday, saying that Mr. Reagan is the one President who - like Mr. Nixon in the rapprochement with China in the 1970s - has the conservative credentials to be able to carry politically a comprehensive arms control deal and a reordering of the entire superpower relationship. Time is on the side of arms control
Moreover, for once pressures of time are working for instead of against arms control. Senator Stevens added, alluding to the ``grand compromise'' between offensive and defensive weapons that has been mooted over the past two years but has generally seemed more Utopia than realistic goal, ``What we're trying to convey here really is a sense of urgency. If [the Soviets are] worried about SDI, this is the time to negotiate. I think parameters can be placed on SDI, not only on testing, but on the part of deployment, now. It would be impossible for the next president, if this presidency is unable to get a firm commitment from the Soviets, to bring about the reduction in these large missiles and start the process of destroying missiles.''
This course is far from settled. But what one week ago looked utterly impossible now looks possible. Arms controllers are still rubbing their eyes.