In his speech at the recent party congress, Soviet President Brezhnev launched a "peace offensive" with an impressive series of concrete proposals, including a summit meeting, which he has since been assiduously following up with letters to European and American heads of governments.
The central question, which Westeners are examining and debating, is whether this olive branch is a genuine one or whether it contains more thorns than fruit. It is only fair to say, however, that in either case it is significant, because Brezhnev chose to respond softly rather than stridently to President Reagan's excoriations of Soviet behavior. This at least indicates that the Kremlin still finds more in its interest a pursuit of "detente," as it defines that equivocal word, than a full-scale reversion to cold War.
While both Europeans and Americans have been careful not to reject the olive branch, there can e little doubt that the former are more attracted to it than the latter, and that responses to various parts of it over the coming year will offer ample occasion, as Mr. Brezhnev no doubt intended, for sharp differences among the Western allies. Hence, an objective assessment of each of the proposals is called for before one attempts to pass judgment on their meaning as a whole.
Brezhnev suggested limiting deployment of US Trident submarines and the new Soviet "Typhoon," which he called "an analogous system." Actually strategic submarines are the most invulnerable of the triad of strategic deterrents, and the one in which the US enjoys at present the most conspicuous advantage. This Soviet proposal is therefore clearly self- serving. Had they wished to offer a real contribution to arms control, they could have suggested reducing the number of their SS- 18s, the heavy missiles which threaten US Minutemen, in exchange for limits on deployment of our MX.
Mr. Brezhnev, moreover, repeated his persistent call for a freeze on deployment of new medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Since no mention was made of dismantling, or even freezing, deployment of Soviet SS-20s targeted on Western Europe, which are the reason for the NATO decision to deploy corresponding weapons, this has to be considered a ploy rather than a serious proposal. Nevertheless the political necessities of the Europeans require early negotiations on this subject.
Mr. Brezhnev said the Kremlin is "prepared to continue without delay" all arms limitation talks, "preserving all the positive elements achieved so far." While the meaning of the last phrase is ambiguous, particularly as it relates to SALT II, there would seem to be every advantage, as soon as the Reagan administration has hammered out a coherent arms policy, to resuming strategic arms limitation talks, if for no other reason than to get a clearer picture of where we stand. Such talks are bound in any case to be long and difficult, and the relentless march of weapons technology is constantly rendering obsolete the assumptions and negotiating positions of the year before.
Mr. Brezhnev seemed to be making a most constructive proposal in offering to extend the "confidence building zone," where military moves and maneuvers would be reported and observed, to include all of Russia west of the Urals. Of course one would want to explore what quid pro quo, in the way of extending the zone westward over the United States, the Soviets would expect to receive.
The Soviet leader said that his government is prepared to participate in a separate settlement of the Afghan question, or to include it in a general Gulf security conference. A separate Afghan settlement acceptable both to the Soviets and the West is probably impossible to achieve, since the Kremlin will certainly insist on maintaining at all costs a subservient communist government in Kabul.
On the other hand, negotiations, whether or not at a formal conference, about the security of Gulf region might well be extremely valuable. If the Soviet Union, in order to avoid a substantial US military presence on its southern flank, would agree to some reciprocal ground rules which would keep itsm forces out of the region south of Afghanistan, both sides would profit in defusing the area where at present they seem most likely to clash.
Mr. Brezhnev suggested a special UN Security Council session "to look for keys to improving the international situation." In view of the heterogeneous composition of the council such a session could hardly be productive of anything but rhetoric. On the other hand, "a new world scientific group" to "demonstrate the vital necessity of preventing a nuclear catastrophe" might have the merit of forcefully reminding the peoples of the world that, if we all continue on our present course, nuclear war is more than likely.
Finally, there is Mr. Brezhnev's proposal for a summit or, more exactly, for "a dialogue at all levels." Interestingly enough, the idea of a dialogue at all levels, including defense officials and parliamentarians as well as diplomats, was put forward in the US in January by a bipartisan panel of distinguished Americans examining US-Soviet relations under the auspices of the UN Association.
The time is certainly not yet ripe for a summit meeting. If such a meeting is to produce more than misleading platitudes, it must have a concrete agenda on which a great deal of spadework has already been accomplished. On the other hand, dialogue at lower levels on a variety of critical subjects can be most useful as a regular practice, at least in reducing misperceptions and exploring the real meaning of some of the proposals discussed above, even of beginning to examine new solutions to common problems which might, if no further catastroph es occur, later be taken up at the summit.