Flawed logic

America's principal allies (those in Western Europe plus Japan) very much want the Reagan administration to get on at once with negotiations over limits on strategic weapons. The Reagan administration has consented to go ahead on talks aimed at limits on the smaller nuclear weapons to be deployed in Europe, but it is holding back on negotiations over the larger and longer-range weapons by which the United States and the Soviet Union could easily destroy each other.

This reluctance to get on with either a revival of SALT II (which was signed but never ratified by the US Senate) or aim at a SALT III to extend the process farther, has two arguments behind it which have, it seems to me, some merit, but a third one with a flaw in it.

One argument with some merit is that the SALT process tended to give the American public a false sense of friendliness between Moscow and Washington which in turn led to an excessive relaxation about American defense.

It is true that the process of negotiating SALT I and II was mixed up with a lot of other things called "detente," which seemed to produce in Western thinking a relaxed sense about Moscow and its future behavior. One assumed the "domestication" of the Soviet Union, hence one spent less on defense than objective considerations would seem to justify.

A second argument is that the US is about to expand its military posture, but that many a decision involved in the process has yet to be made. Hence, so the argument goes, Washington should hold off until it knows just what bargaining chips it has in hand.

This also has some merit. The administration has not yet decided whether it is going to go ahead with the highly controversial MX missile and the equally controversial B1 bomber, two of the most expensive weapons systems ever conceived. Add that the Navy has yet to resolve its own internal argument between the "big carrier" admirals and the "sea lane control" admirals.

"How can we bargain with the Soviets until we know what we want to build" is a serious question.

A third argument being used for delay is called "linkage." Secretary of State Alexander Haig used it in his July 14 speech on arms control policy. He proposes "to seek arms control bearing in mind the whole context of Soviet conduct worldwide."

The danger of going ahead with arms control without considering "linkage," he argues, is that the US might find itself "saying that in order to preserve arms control we have to tolerate Soviet aggression."

It is an interesting argument but, in my own opinion, not valid. It assumes that arms control is something the Soviets want more than the West wants it. Hence, by withholding it or doling it out at its pleasure, the US can induce them to behave better than they would otherwise.

Arms control could be something the Soviets wants more than the West does if time were on the Western side in arms production. But is it? The Reagan administration is loud in plans for a massive expansion in military power, but none of the American allies are willing to join in boosting their military posture. Japan is stonewalling Washington pressure to go up. The British are actually cutting back on their military budget.

As for the American defense posture, it is one thing to propose a vast arms building program and another to get it from Congress and from the public. It seems tobe highly doubtful that Congress and public opinion will produce all the new guns the administration is proposing.

The other side of that coin is that Soviet military spending is determined inside the Kremlin. A decision there can be translated into quick and decisive action. It will be easier for Moscow to match what Washington builds than for Washington to keep ahead of the Soviets.

Arms control is a quantity which the West needs just as much as do the Soviets, and probably more so. If I am right on this point, then it follows that arms control is not something the West can offer the Soviets as a reward for good behavior. Rather, it is something which the West needs for its own protection regardless of Soviet behavior in other matters.

Moscow is a world-ranging power with the normal inclination of any great power to expand its influence wherever it can do so to its own advantage. I do not see how Moscow can be deterred from that inclination, or the exercise of it, by delaying arms control negotiations. But it is just possible that the very process of talking might exert some mild restraint. More importantly, it would reduce the possible consequences if the competition for influence gets rough.

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