Tight budgets break the superpower ice

Moscow's Andrei Gromyko and Washington's Alexander Haig had their second meeting this past week. They were together for five hours this time -- most of it just the two foreign ministers with interpreters, no others.

Added to the four-hour meeting of the previous week the spokesmen for the rival superpowers have now been together for nine hours of reportedly "frank" talking.

The fact that these two have spent nine hours in talking together during the final 10 days of September testifies to the pressure of economic factors on foreign policy in both countries. Were both the Soviet Union and the United States in a condition of abundant wealth and prosperity, they would probably both be building weapons faster than they are and not bothering to talk at all.

They are rivals. They distrust each other. Beign anti-Soviet is still politically popular in the United States and considered to be "good politics." (In this context "good" is to be read as meaning productive of public approval.) Talking with the Soviets had a low priority on President Reagan's list of policy priorities when he entered the White House last January.

But times change. Perceptions are molded by changing circumstances. The American economy is still in fragile and uncertain condition. President Reagan, like so many of his predecessors, has had to learn that campaign promises cannot always be converted into results as quickly or as easily as seems possible to the politician on the campaign stump who has never worked inside the White House itself.

In this case, events have drawn a hard conclusion. Mr. Reagan can achieve his dream goal of a balanced federal budget by 1984 only by doing one of three things. He could, in theory, renounce or defer some of his tax cuts. He could, in theory, cut deep into social security payments. He can, in fact, if he is willing to change his thinking about the Soviet Union, cut back on defense.

The first two of the three options are closed off by politics. Congress has decided in its own mind that social security is untouchable. The Reagan constituency values the already enacted tax cuts above all else. They, too, are political "sa" cred cows."

But defense?

Congress is willing to have it toned down. Public opinion would accept less defense spending than the trillion and a half dollar five-year program Mr. Reagan has proposed. It is politically possible.

But if the Soviets are as much of a military menace as Mr. Reagan declared them to be during the campaign, and if there is no composing of differences with them, then there could not in logic be any trimming back of the defense proposals. To justify trimming would require as a first step negotiations with the men of Moscow.

The Soviets, too, have economic problems. One reason they have done nothing further in foreign ventures since the invasion of Afghanistan is the cost of their existing ventures. Cuba takes more than $10 million of Soviet economic and military aid per day. Vietnam probably drains the Kremlin's treasury of as much again. Afghanistan may be costing even more.

The Kremlin would be under strain to fund more ventures. To take over direct control of Poland would mean not only fighting a Polish underground resistance army, but also trying to revive Poland's bankrupt economy. Modern empires are expensive luxuries.

So, during the past week Messrs. Gromyko and Haig sat down together because their countries are both suffering from economic strains and because another major round in the arms race would be further burden on their respective economies that neither superpower can really afford.

The serious question for both is whether there is any type of agreement possible that could justify them in trimming their current plans for more guns. Actual reduction in present arms programs is unlikely. But as yet there has not been any actual increase in either the Soviet or American programs. Guns and tanks are coming off the assembly lines at roughly the rate of production that has been standard in both countries for a decade.

No one in government in Washington is talking seriously yet about reducing those existing production schedules, but there is room in theory at least for agreements on not speeding them up much.

For Washington the biggest difference would come from soke kind of understanding that Moscow wuld not undertake any new ventures in influence spreading. It seems hihgly improbable that the Kremlin would bind its hands. It considers that it has as much right to support revolutionary or "popular liberation" movements trying to suppress revolutionary or "liberation" movements.

but suppose that at the end of many more sessions such as the ones which have now begun between Messrs. Haig and Gromyko there might be some form of tacit understanding that each superpower would be respectful of those areas most important to the other.

That could mean Soviet restraint in Central America and in the oil-bearing regions of the Middle East. There would have to be a quid pro quo, of course. The US might, perhaps, refrain in return from selling modern weapons to China. It might undertake to be careful to avoid trying to break up Moscow's political "sytem" in Eastern Europe.

If some such arrangement could be worked out, even tacitly, then President Reagan would be able to justify further trimming of his defense budget, which in turn could bring the possibility of a balanced federal budget by 1984 back into the realm of the credible.

Meanwhile, of course, Mr. Reagan feels taht the US must push ahead with selling AWACS to Saudi Arabia and with building a new manned bomber and with finding a happy home for the MX missile, which no one wants in his own. backyard. And Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger unveils a 99-page catalogue of Soviet weaponry designed to induce congressmen to vote for increases in US military spending.

Without diplomacy there can be no major defense cuts. Without major defense cuts there can be no end to economic uncertainty and inflation. Mr. Reagan has problems on his doorstep. But Secretary Haig has at least begun the long journey that might, conceivably, someday bring some relief.

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