Arms Control Headway

AS a person tidies up his accounts before asking his banker for a major loan, so Mikhail Gorbachev is putting his affairs with the West in order. Angling for substantial economic aid from the United States and Europe, Mr. Gorbachev evidently wants to conclude unfinished business that could call into doubt his good intentions. That may explain the welcome announcement last weekend that the Soviet Union and the US have reached final agreement on a treaty reducing conventional forces in Europe (CFE). The pact, which covers tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, combat aircraft, and helicopters, was actually signed in November. With the ink barely dry, however, Moscow contended that the treaty limits do not apply to certain categories of forces, including naval infantry and coastal-defense units.

The Bush administration and members of the Senate properly refused to consider ratification of the treaty until the disputes were reconciled. The lingering CFE issues weren't militarily vital, but politically they raised questions about Soviet reliability. For the same reason, the Soviet haggling put a damper on negotiations on a treaty (START) to reduce US and USSR nuclear forces.

After meeting in Lisbon Saturday, Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh declared that the disagreements have been settled. (Though the envoys didn't give details, the Soviets apparently conceded that most of the disputed forces would come under the treaty limits.) That should pave the way for ratification of the valuable CFE treaty, which substantially lowers the capacity of the Soviet Union and NATO to wage a major land war in Europe. The agreement should als o energize the parties to wrap up START, which is nearly complete.

Gorbachev is eager to schedule a summit with President Bush as a forum to press Gorbachev's petitions for aid to the desperate Soviet economy, and the Soviet president may point to his reasonableness on CFE as a sufficient reason to meet. Bush, for political reasons, may also fancy a summit sooner rather than later. But the US should agree to a summit only if the START treaty can be signed. The history of strategic negotiations indicates that summit-driven deadlines put pressure on negotiators to conclu de talks that otherwise drag on.

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