To link or not link?

To what must be the relief of everyone, President Reagan has come around to detaching strategic arms talks with the Soviet Union from political problems in East-West relations. He not only has put an arms reduction proposal on the table but has set a firm date--June 29--for the start of the negotiations. He thus arrives in Europe looking the statesmanlike peacemaker rather than feisty gladiator.

There is little doubt the West Europeans will widely approve what now appears to be a less confrontational United States policy toward the Russians. They are right. The competition in nuclear arms is far too dangerous to the security of the West and the whole world to be linked to developments in , for instance, Poland or Afghanistan. Stabilizing that competition cannot await the solution of political problems. In fact the political problems--and the risks of conflict they generate--make it all the more urgent to bring the arms race under control.

It is therefore encouraging to have also Mr. Reagan's pledge that the US will abide by previous arms limitation agreements with Moscow as long as the Russians show equal restraint. The President did not mention SALT by name in his Memorial Day speech but his pledge would encompass the unratified SALT II treaty. Whether such voluntary compliance is sufficient is open to question, of course. New weapons are going to be deployed by both sides which are more difficult to verify, and this will put strains on the SALT II agreements. Hence there is considerable merit in the idea of a joint resolution by Congress giving more formal adherence to SALT II--but short of ratification.

In any case, it is now up to the US and the USSR to prove how serious they are. Mr. Brezhnev's proposal for a nuclear freeze is unacceptable to the American side. Mr. Reagan's bold proposal for deep reductions in mutual arsenals is equally certain to give the Russians problems--a concern no doubt heightened by the Pentagon's recently aired blueprint for fighting a protracted nuclear war. Yet the two sides must make a start, and START is therefore to be heartily welcomed.

Linkage on the economic front, however, is another matter. Among the chores confronting Mr. Reagan this week is to try to bring coherence and unity to the whole subject of East-West trade. At present there is a good deal of confusion. The US is especially upset about the Siberian pipeline being built to Western Europe and wants stricter strategic controls on technology supplied to the Russians. The Europeans, for their part, who do far more business with the East , see no reason why they should abandon a beneficial natural gas project while Washington continues its profitable grain trade with Moscow.

Both sides have a point. It is self-defeating to provide the Eastern-bloc nations with massive loans at less than the market rates, thereby subsidizing their economies and giving them a hammerlock on the Western banking system. And it would be foolhardy for a Western nation to become dependent on the Soviet Union for a key resource.

At the same time trade has brought economic as well as political benefits. The gas pipeline, for instance, will help expand the total world supply of fossil fuel; this, looking down the road, may not be a bad idea. Economic detente in general has benefited American farmers as well as European manufacturers. It has also contributed to some liberalization in Eastern Europe.

However, the general level of trade can reasonably be tied to Soviet restraint in political areas. Moscow should not expect to get everything it wants from the West when martial law continues in Poland, when its troops are ravaging Afghanistan, when it goes on funding Cuban mercenaries in far corners of the globe. A sensible Western economic policy should include incentives to the Russians for moderate behavior abroad and disincentives to aggressive actions.

To coordinate their policies toward the East--and build in the proper amount of linkage--is one of the urgent tasks facing the Western summiteers.

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