President Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig have been maneuvered by Moscow into agreeing that someday, if and when all their preconditions have been met, they might be willing to go to a summit conference with Moscow's Leonid Brezhnev.
One of the preconditions presumably would be a promise from the Soviets to refrain from sending, or helping to send, guns to insurgent armies in Central America. Another would be the willingness of the Soviets to agree to a "code of conduct" which would rule out affairs such as the one we are working our way through right now over guns to El Salvador.
Offhand it sounds easy. Washington just says: "It's wrong for you to send guns to the rebels in El Salvador. You should stop doing it. We won't talk to you about limiting nuclear weapons unless you do stop it." That sort of approach is called "linkage." By playing around with "linkages" we ought to be able to bring the men of the Kremlin to a comfortable "code of conduct."
Well, as a matter of fact we do have in existence an agreed "code of conduct" between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was negotiated by Henry Kissinger and signed by Richard Nixon and Mr. Brezhnev on June 22, 1973, in Washington. The two parties agreed to:
". . . Act in such a manner as to prevent the development of situations capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation of their relations, as to avoid military confrontations, and as to exclude the outbreak of nuclear war between them and between other parties and other countries."
They agreed to go to "urgent consultations" when anything happens to cause a danger of nuclear confrontation.
But they also agreed that nothing in the document would affect or impair "the obligations undertaken by either party towards its allies or other countries in treaties, agreements, and other appropriate documents."
That was the best "code of conduct" which either party would accept in 1973 at the very peak of "detente." It is also the best anyone could realistically expect to get today. Washington would not agree to anything more limiting on its own behavior anymore than would the Soviets.
Neither would agree because neither is going to give up the freedom to recruit allies and clients wherever they can be found and to support those allies or clients when in need. Washington is unhappy when communist countries ship guns to the rebels in El Salvador. But Moscow is equally unhappy when noncommunist countries send guns to the rebels in Afghanistan, or even lend encouragement to the workers in Poland.
Washington does not want Soviet influence in Central America, but Moscow does not want US influence along its frontiers in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. Washington could probably strike a bargain over El Salvador. Moscow would probably be more than happy to agree to keep hands off there, provided the US would cease supplying guns and economic aid to Turkey. But the United States wants Turkey as an ally and the United States intends to keep on helping the Turks both by weaponry and by economic aid.
So that deal is off. Turkey is a member of NATO. The rebels in El Salvador include some communists. It is unreasonable to think that Moscow would agree publicly to abandon any communists to the mercy of "capitalists." They might abandon them clandestinely, if it suited the overall purposes of the Kremlin. They have abandoned many a communist group or movement for some reason of expedience. They are not going to do it overtly.
But none of this means that the code is worthless. It did work, once, during the 1973 Middle East war. The Israelis had broken the Egyptian front and nearly surrounded an entire Egyptian army. The Egyptians called for help under terms of their then agreement with Moscow. Moscow readied a Soviet airborne division to go to the aid of the beleaguered Egyptians. They let Washington see the preparations. In effect they said: "That Egyptian army is not going to be captured. We will save it, unless you care to." Washington then told the Israelis to halt their armies and leave the surrounded Egyptian army alone. The problem was worked out that way --
Had the endangered army been Israeli rather than Egyptian the hand would have been played the same way -- in reverse. Great powers must protect their clients , or go out of the great power business. The USA and the USSR are competitors in the great power business. Guns to rebels in El Salvador is as routine a practice in such rivalries as guns to rebels in Afghanistan. An end to such practices can always be arranged between great powers, but at a price. What is Washington ready to pay to get Moscow to call off the gun run to El Salvador?