That the new Reagan administration and the old Brezhnev regime should be exchanging tough words is not surprising. The President and his secretary of state are making plain early on they intend a firmer posture toward Moscow. Making Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin use the front door of the State Department instead of his formerly privileged underground entrance is symbolic of the change (and not an unhumorous one). The Russians, predictably, are responding with some sharp words of their own. But the diplomatic interchange is no cause for alarm. It is a postelection prelude. Once a tone of dealing unsentimentally with the Russians is established in Washington -- for reasons of both diplomacy and domestic politics -- we expect the United States and the Soviet Union to get on with the task of confronting and trying to resolve the conflicts between them.
Arms control heads the list -- and rightly so.
We are happy to hear signals from Washington that, barring adverse developments in Poland, the administration is preparing for new talks with Moscow on key questions of strategic arms limitation. Mr. Reagan talks of trying to achieve "an actual reduction in the numbers of nuclear weapons" (remember Jimmy Carter doing the same in 1977?). That is a commendable goal. But whether this is possible or not, the point is that rationality dictates an early and vigorous effort to come to grips with the problem. Above all world stability depends on it. The passage of time since Hiroshima should not deaden humanity's sensitivity to the dangers of nuclear war.
Economic pressures also demand it. It is clear that failure to work out a new SALT pact would propel the superpowers into a strategic arms race of incalculable cost. The impact of such a race on efforts to cut US federal spending would be obvious. While the US economy is strong enough to boost military expenditures -- in fact the share of the American GNP devoted to defense is comparatively modest -- every ratcheting up of the military budget will mean squeezing taxpayers or domestic social programs if the total budget is to be brought under control. Moreover, the US needs less to expand its strategic arms than to upgrade its conventional weapons. Why spend dollars needlessly on nuclear weapons?
Plunging into SALT discussions prematurely, without adequate preparation, would be foolhardly of course. But time is of the essence. The unratified SALT II "protocol" which prohibits the deployment of long-range ground-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles expires at the end of the year. Also, by early next year the Soviet Union will face the decision of whether to limit the number of its multiple-warhead ICBMs allowed under SALT II (it has been replacing its single-war- head missiles with the new warheads) or to continue its modernization program.
The advantages and disadvantages of SALT II have been much debated but deserve brief mention here. Without a treaty, the Russians would be able to go on deploying their new nuclear warheads and either catch up with or surpass the present US edge. Without a treaty, the Russians could continue building up their nuclear systems, including their heavy missiles. Without a treaty, US intelligence-gathering would be more difficult.
The main disadvantage of SALT II is seen to lie in what is called the "counterforce problem": the perceived vulnerability of the US ICBM force to a Soviet first-strike in the early 1980s. Here Mr. Reagan will have to wrestle with what to do about the MX system, which has been planned as a solution of the problem. Fortunately, many who gave such enthusiastic support to the complicated (and expensive) MX concept now have second thoughts. One proposal deserving close scrutiny is putting the MX missiles aboard Navy surface ships and sending them out to sea.
Whatever the solution worked out, the important thing is to waste no time in addressing the issues. In a recent report on US national security choices the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded that in the next year or so the Russians are unlikely to deploy new weapons that will add to US strategic problems and the US cannot acquire the capability to ease these problems. The doors to negotiating new limitations are apt to remain open, it says, and both countries will probably remain within the SALT I and SALT II limits. So the opportunity for arms control progress is not yet lost.
President Reagan appears to be moving to take advantage of this "window." In doing so he shows an early awareness of the dangerous and costly realitie s of nuclear competition.