Serious strategic arms control talks now draw inexorably closer and that should be buoying news for everyone. Ronald Reagan has put forth his opening negotiating position -- a proposal calling for deep reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union. Now Leonid Brezhnev has countered with his own bid -- a call for a nuclear freeze. The two sides may be signalling to each other across a wide chasm of differences. But they are prepared to sit down and talk. That is decided progress.
President Reagan clearly will find Mr. Brezhnev's proposal unacceptable. One aspect of the Soviet leader's freeze offer is set in the context of medium-range nuclear weapons (those targeted on Western Europe). Inasmuch as the Russians now are seen to have a nuclear edge in Europe, the US and its NATO allies could hardly accept freezing that advantage. So that is a nonstarter.
If Mr. Brezhnev has opened the door to a freeze on strategic weapons as well, this too is unrealistic. He no doubt would like to forestall further nuclear arms deployment by the US. But President Reagan has insisted from the outset that the American land-based missiles are today vulnerable to a Soviet first strike. That is the problem his nuclear buildup -- and his arms proposal -- seek to address. To back off that position now would be politically hazardous even if Mr. Reagan wanted to, which he does not.
Many West Europeans and American antinuclear advocates may find the Kennedy-Hatfield proposals for a nuclear freeze attractive, and Mr. Brezhnev has cleverly pitched his proposal to the antinuclear peace movement. Indeed some arms experts believe that such a freeze would leave the US in good shape (a conclusion also suggested by the fact that the Joint Chiefs of Staff say they would never exchange the nuclear forces of the US for those of the Soviet Union). But is a freeze the best way to negotiate with an adversary? Without the threat of further arms deployment, there is no reason for Mr. Brezhnev to negotiate and come to a settlement. Negotiating even a freeze, moreover, would not be as simple as it sounds for it would have to deal with the problem of what the two nations do when their nuclear arsenals deterioriate, i.e. how to keep them modernized.
If Mr. Reagan has his misgivings about the Soviet proposal, however, Mr. Brezhnev must be no less wary of the President's offer. The administration in effect asks the Russians to make bigger concessions in arms reductions than would the US. Thus the Russians would have to make severe cuts in the number of their missiles, in which they have a sizeable lead, while the US would reduce its arsenal of warheads by roughly the same amount as would the Soviet Union. Moscow, moreover, would have to restructure its nuclear forces in order to put more fire power out to sea.
No matter that the superpowers are far apart, however. It is obvious that each side sets forth its most extreme position first. Negotiation does not take place at Eureka College or at a meeting of the Soviet Young Communist League, which is where Mr. Brezhnev spoke. Such public pronouncements deal with the atmospherics, and the encouraging thing is that the atmospherics are improving. President Reagan can respond to his Soviet counterpart by indicating a willingness to proceed soon with talks and see whether it is possible to find common ground.
The urgent challenge remains: to try -- yet once again -- to bring under control what millions agree is humanity's most dangerous problem. Mr. Reagan and Mr. Brezhnev at last are getting ready to accept it.