President Reagan says he wants more strategic nuclear arms so he can negotiate with Moscow for fewer strategic nuclear arms -- for the real reductions that weren't achieved in the SALT II Treaty.
Mr. Reagan wants to move in two opposite directions: first, deploy more American nuclear weapons, to redress the balance; then negotiate reductions in nuclear weapons, Soviet and American.
Mr. Reagan's policy has an obvious pitfall. Mr. Brezhnev will pursue it too; both sides will deploy even more nuclear weapons and the result will be an accelerater arms race and heightened tension between the superpowers.
On the other hand, the threat of more arms in contrast with their actual deployment can provide important and usable bargaining leverage with the Russians -- as President Nixon discovered in 1972. Mr. Nixon used the threat of more American antiballistic missiles to obtain a ceiling on Soviet offensive missiles. Mr. Nixon was ready to forgo an American advantage in ABMs to stop an expanding Russian offensive program. This "trade" was the core of SALT I.
Mr. Reagan could bargain with the Russians in the same way -- if he really wants reductions, as he says he does, and if he is really willing to put America's major new strategic "advantage," the MX missile, on the bargaining table. But is Mr. Reagan ready to bargain with the MX? Or has MX already become an untouchable sacred cow, though is has not yet even been produced?
The case for MX seems unassailable: the land-based Minuteman missile is America's most accurate and reliable weapon and an essential element of the triad. But the Minuteman force is becoming vulnerable to a Soviet first strike. MX is to be its invulnerable replacement.
But with MX, Russia's land-based force --the bulk of its retaliatory force -- will be vulnerable to an American first strike. The Soviets could be driven to keep their forces on a hair-trigger alert and adopt a launch-on-warning policy. The nuclear balance would be less stable, nuclear deterrence would be less effective, and the chance of nuclear war would go up. These are compelling disadvantages.
There is a way out of this dilemma. Substantial reductions in missiles with multiple warhead (MIRVed missiles) would lessen the vulnerability of America's -- and Russia's --ductions in MIRVed missiles would eliminate the need for MX. America's and Russian's land-based retaliatory capability would remain secure. Stability and deterrece would be strengthened.
Mr. Reagan should negotiate now a Vladivostok-type agreement with Moscow to define key elements of SALT III, particularly a much lower level for multiple warhead missiles, including the Soviet "heavy" missile. This would also correct SALT II's most serious shortcoming and set the stage for its ratification.
The SALT II treaty has been regarded as seriously flawed by Mr. Reagan and others --especially because it permits the Soviet Union but not America to have 300 "heavy" missiles. But there is wide agreement that SALT II does impose significant limitations on the Russians which are important to preserve. Furthermore, the numerous common ceilings which SALT II establishes on various weapons categories provide an essential base line or starting point for the more substantial reductions which Mr. Reagan says he wants to bring about.
In negotiating a guidelines agreement for SALT III, President Reagan has two important bargaining cards. He can defer the MX missile, and thus remove the coming threat to the Soviet force. And he can agree to seek Senate ratification of SALT II -- of great importance politically to Moscow, to our allies, and to the rest of the world.
Although America's Soviet policy has traditionally been both competitive and cooperative, President Reagan has thus far shown little duality in his approach to the Soviet Union. Yet cooperative efforts -- retraint regarding nuclear weapons and ratification of SALT II -- would permit america to use its resources where they are most needed in the competitive struggle.