A make-or-break round of arms talks begins. The US and the Soviet Union are close to a historic agreement to cut nuclear weapons. Delegations meet today in Geneva to discuss removing medium- and possibly short-range missiles from Europe. The US's allies are on board for the medium-range proposal, but are wary of cuts in the short-range category.
THE most important arms control negotiations for the rest of this century open in Geneva today. They could, for the first time in the nuclear era, lead to an agreement to destroy thousands of nuclear weapons (instead of just putting a ceiling on existing numbers, as previous arms control agreements did). Or, if the talks fail, they could lead to an unprecedented all-out arms race in both defensive and offensive systems.Skip to next paragraph
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That this is the make-or-break round for the Reagan administration is obvious. Any arms control agreement that is to be concluded under this president has to be outlined in this session (or in a summit that would have to be held very soon); anything sketched out later would not be far enough advanced to survive the politicking of the 1988 presidential election.
That this is also the make-or-break session for the remainder of the 20th century is perhaps less obvious, but no less valid. There are two reasons for this. First, the still-popular President Reagan could carry a consensus for any agreement he was willing to sign. Any successor, however, whether Democrat or Republican, would face stiff opposition from the political right and probably could not muster a two-thirds ratification in the Senate.
Second, the only time when nations are ready to agree on mutual limitations on arms is when they enjoy rough parity, in a fairly stable environment, such as at present. Only then do they think that their security would be enhanced rather than degraded by arms control.
By contrast, in a situation in which one side leads or the balance might shift suddenly, the trailing side never wants to foreclose its chances of catching up, while the leading side never wants to give away its advantage.
Unless some agreed restraints are established now, in this period of relative strategic equality, just such an unstable race will characterize the 1990s.
The United States will forge ahead in the brand-new area of space defense and the Soviet Union will scramble to catch up - and the easiest way for both sides to outmaneuver the adversary's growing defenses will be to build more and more offensive weapons.
THE major question facing policymakers in the Geneva talks is therefore:
Assuming that Mr. Reagan wants the deep cuts in offensive strategic nuclear weapons that he says he does, is this goal important enough to him to accept the tradeoff of constraints on his pet Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars'')?
The two are linked, since prospects are that strategic defense would be able to deflect a limited volley of warheads hurled against it, but not a larger one - and superpowers are therefore willing to limit their warheads by arms control arrangements only if they know the adversary is not going to mount a large strategic defense that would neutralize a limited arsenal.
For the US the obverse question must be: Is the US so confident that it can stay ahead of the Soviet Union in space defense over the long haul (and not just over the next ephemeral seven or eight years) that it would prefer a costly all-out arms race to mutual restraints? Or even if the military advantage might not be all that great, would it be worth it to force the sluggish Soviet economy into a competition that could bankrupt it?
For Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the looming question just now is: What will be the overall effect of his gamble in emphasizing Euromissile theater arms control at this stage over the more crucial strategic arms control? Will the agreement that is likely to be signed this year in this area of lesser importance begin momentum toward that larger goal that both superpowers endorse of 50 percent cuts in today's strategic offensive weapons? Or will the bonhomie surrounding the first superpower arms control agreement in eight years simply divert attention from the more critical question and remove the pressure to resolve it?
FOR both sides there is one additional question: even if both want a deal, could they accelerate the very tough nuts-and-bolts negotiations needed to produce an actual treaty fast enough to complete the bargain before Reagan's incumbency runs out?
In the central issue of strategic offensive arms control, both superpowers certainly have strong incentives to reach a comprehensive agreement - both to increase stability and safety in a dangerous nuclear world and to save the billions of dollars that would otherwise be spent in massive arms production.