An unfinished portrait of one guardian of `the nuclear peace'

THE MASTER OF THE GAME: PAUL NITZE AND THE NUCLEAR PEACE by Strobe Talbott

New York: Knopf. 416 pages. $19.95

THIS is a superb book about Nitze the tactician. And with the revision Strobe Talbott will surely write when a strategic arms reduction (START) treaty halves long-range nuclear weapons in 1990 or so, it will also be a superb book about Nitze the strategist.

In the interim it will be the definitive public study of ongoing superpower arms negotiations. But it will leave a sour taste in the mouths of President Ronald Reagan, President-elect George Bush, and Paul Nitze himself, and it may well complicate the conclusion of START.

The reason is the premature public disclosure (before a treaty has been salted down) of Nitze's dismissal of his commander in chief's cherished ``star wars.'' Perhaps it shouldn't matter that the dean of American nuclear negotiators and thinkers has now, in footnoted interviews with Talbott, written off his boss's dream. Ronald Reagan will soon be out of the White House, after all.

Furthermore, Nitze's views are hardly news. Since 1985 they have been apparent to any arms control reporter who paid attention. And since early 1987 his lobbying for Soviet-American agreement on limits to space tests has made Nitze the b^ete noir of right-wing ideologues.

Yet it's one thing for all this to be general knowledge among arms control groupies, and quite another for it to be put down in print before Reagan's crucial support for a completed START treaty has ensured ratification.

The indiscretion arises in part from Talbott's portrayal of Nitze's tactics essentially in terms of Robert McFarlane's intended ``sting'' operation, playing Reagan for the fool and turning the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) into a bargaining chip for deep cuts in offensive weapons.

Then there is one additional problem. Despite Talbott's mastery of Soviet politics - and his excellent description of the whole counterintuitive logic of nuclear deterrence - it's often easy for the reader of this book to forget that the Kremlin's Mikhail Gorbachev (and not the Pentagon's Richard Perle) is Nitze's main antagonist. The details of Washington infighting don't overwhelm the actual dynamics of Soviet-American interaction as much here as in Talbott's chronicle of the ``Euromissile'' negotiations, ``Deadly Gambits.'' But they do dominate.

Talbott's dramatic device in playing up McFarlane and playing down the Soviets is understandable. He has written elsewhere about Soviet policies. And national security adviser McFarlane was pithy and full of the colorful anecdotes that Talbott uses so brilliantly to chart the chaotic course of negotiations in the Reagan administration. No Soviet official was so forthcoming.

In tandem, however, these approaches sometimes obscure rather than illumine the structural design of Nitze's half century in public service.

In presenting the strategy rather than the tactics of his ``game'' plan, Nitze himself would probably begin by saying that Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev offered that rare conjunction when leaders of both superpowers saw benefit in arms control and were willing to suspend the search for marginal advantage.

Hard-liners in both countries first had to have their crack at denying the reality of nuclear stalemate, Nitze might continue - Soviet hard-liners in the 1970s in Angola and Afghanistan, American hard-liners in the 1980s in SDI. And both first had to be frustrated. As this happened, Reagan's extravagant SDI wonderfully concentrated minds in a Kremlin worried about economic crisis, while congressional revolt against starry-eyed spending in space wonderfully concentrated minds in Washington.

With this tiny expansion of room for maneuver, Gorbachev and Nitze each gambled that a relatively minor treaty eliminating ``Euromissiles'' would ease the way to the key START treaty and win Reagan and the bulk of the American right to the cause of arms control and stability. Along the way each man sold every wary, ambiguous advance domestically as simply putting a good PR spin on developments - until suddenly there was a ``Euromissile'' treaty, and then 90 percent agreement on START, with astonishing political consensus in both nations.

But, the cynic will protest, that's simply putting an idealistic gloss on McFarlane's basic plot.

Maybe. And yet it seems to me that McFarlane's scam and Nitze's undoubted vanity don't begin to account for this success. Nor do they explain what has kept the octogenarian Nitze driving so hard for arms control all these years.

For a full portrayal of this man's passion for moderation - and of the moral and intellectual excitement Nitze displays as one guardian of ``the nuclear peace'' - I'll wait for Talbott's sequel in 1990.

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