New try on arms control

For some time now the Soviet Union has been building up its capacity to launch a devastating nuclear attack against Western Europe. In response to this threat, NATO is planning its own deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Does this sound like an escalation of the already massive and costly arms race? It most certainly does. This is why it is reassuring news that the United States and the Soviet Union have agreed to begin talks on limiting European-based nuclear weapons.

President Reagan has not displayed any enthusiasm for such talks before US military power is built up. He prefers to negotiate from a position of superior strength. It seems clear therefore that he is moving toward talks largely in order to repair the serious strains in relations with the European allies, who are resisting the stationing of Pershing and cruise missiles on their soil without a parallel arms control dialogue. The West Europeans certainly do not want out of NATO. But, in the eyes of many, the US has been sounding bellicose instead of searching for some form of coexistence with the Russians. Mr. Reagan rightly perceives that, without some diplomatic action on arms control, the whole NATO missile program could unravel.

There is no question the program is needed. NATO would be at a grave negotiating disadvantage if it did not proceed with plans for deployment of the weapons. This is borne out of the just-issued annual military assessment by the respected International Institute for Strategic Studies. The London institute warns that the balance of nuclear forces in Europe continues to move in favor of the USSR. The Russians now have some 180 SS-20 missiles with multiple warheads aimed at Western Europe -- a worrisome imbalance not only because there is no equivalent on the West European side but because the levels of strategic weapons have reached parity.

In this connection, experts note that the upcoming arms talks on theater nuclear weapons will make sense only if the strategic balance is maintained -- and this means a resumption of the SALT process. Regrettably, there is no sign yet that the Reagan administration knows where it wants to go in arms control discussions -- with respect to theater or strategic weapons. But it will not be surprising if the political pressures from NATO partners and the economic pressures of budget deficits at home keep nudging President Reagan down the arms control road.

Significantly -- and not without some irony -- the superpowers are sticking to the provisions of the SALT II treaty and not procuring any strategic systems that run counter to it, as the London institute also reports. This despite that fact that the pact has not been ratified. Does this not suggest that the arms control effort, for all its limited gains, has been more productive than administration skeptics are willing to concede?

Indeed those who so vehemently oppose negotiating with the Soviet Union on grounds that the West has fallen seriously behind might take note of some other institute findings: namely, that the worldwide nuclear balance is such as to discourage military aggression and that the Soviet Union is not without it own array of serious difficulties, including uncertainty about the reliability of its Warsaw Pact allies.

As in most things, the truth about nuclear arms lies somewhere between the views of the alarmists and those who see no dangers to the West at all. The public should not be taken in by either extreme. It is to be hoped that, by setting a date for launching talks with the Soviet Union, the Reagan administration is coming around to that balanced, realistic middle ground.

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