The burgeoning nuclear weapons debate has overshadowed a set of negotiations in Geneva that are showing hopeful signs of pro-gress. Their subject is chemical weapons, including choking agents, blood gases, blister agents, psychochemicals, and nerve agents - some of the grisliest reminders of the ugliness of war. These talks are in a critical phase, and the wisdom and goodwill of American policy are being tested.
The need for a complete and verifiable ban on chemical weapons grows ever more urgent. Their possible proliferation to other nations is a major worry. A more urgent concern for the United States derives from the East-West balance: the Soviets possess a significant advantage over the US in terms of their ability to wage combat in a chemically contaminated environment and in terms of their apparent readiness to use such weapons.
Without a ban, the US is faced with two unpalatable options. The first, a willingness to respond to a chemical attack with nuclear weapons, lowers the nuclear threshold. The second, the maintenance of a credible chemical deterrent, is highly distasteful, and is becoming increasingly difficult as the US faces the problem of modernizing its chemical warfare capability.
The Reagan administration has, in fact, proposed to modernize the currently existing US retaliatory capability by producing binary chemical weapons, though Congress last year denied the funds. Binary weapons consist of two relatively nontoxic chemical components that form nerve gas only when combined, which makes them safer, easier, and cheaper to store and transport. Their production also raises the specter of substantial political turmoil in Europe on a level commensurate with the infamous neutron bomb controversy.
Chemical weapons have been on the arms control agenda for many years, and the negotiating successes have been important but inadequate. The Geneva Protocol of 1925, set in motion by the abhorrent experiences of World War I where poison gases were used extensively, was an attempt to control this form of warfare. But it forbids neither the production, stockpiling, nor use of such weapons, though use is permitted only in retaliation against those who use them first. During the Nixon administration, negotiators were able to split off biological weapons from the comprehensive chemical weapons domain, and since the Soviets shared our perception that there could be no possible rationale for such weapons, an agreement was quickly achieved.
A complete ban on chemical weapons production, stockpiling, and use has been actively sought since 1972. Under the rubric of the Committee on Disarmament, a 40-member group of nations loosely affiliated with the United Nations, talks in Geneva have resolved many technical obstacles to effective chemical weapons control. But progress has been slow. Reports of Soviet ''yellow rain'' activities in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan have made the search for verification provisions more arduous. And nonaligned nations have avoided anything that might trap them in a superpower propaganda whirlpool.
The source of our current optimism is a document submitted Feb. 10, 1983, by US negotiator Louis G. Fields that for the first time spells out in detail US views on the necessary contents of a chemical weapons ban. Happily, its submission broke a long lull in US activism. The document reflects a careful review of the achievements of the many working groups over the years. It attempts to resolve the longstanding stumbling block - verification - by proposing a mix of systematic and ad hoc international on-site inspections.
There have been recent indications that the USSR is moving toward acceptance of this idea. But whatever optimism this initiative engenders must be tempered by the lessons of the past.
First, progress in the multilateral talks historically has been dependent upon bilateral US-USSR talks, but these have been held in abeyance by the US since the election of the Reagan administration. The intended effect, to help the world community perceive more clearly Soviet recalcitrance and manipulation, has been realized. But without US-USSR bilateral agreement, there is no chance for an effective ban. Is the US prepared to gamble by returning to the bilateral talks?
Second, bureaucratic ineptitude and un-clear lines of authority have frustrated the talks from the start. Soviet delegates last summer tabled a document similar in purpose to Fields', but when pressed to explain positions on verification, they were apparently unable to gain Moscow's clearance. Let us hope that the current malaise at our own Arms Control and Disarmament Agency does not paralyze our efforts.
Third, there is a real question of the negotiating sincerity of both superpowers. The Soviets have been astute propagandists, and their intense focus on temporary, tactical advantage raises questions about their commitment to the broader arms control goal. But our own record is not as good as we might wish, and many abroad question our intent. US prestige has been tarnished by the 50 years it took us to accede to the Geneva Protocol and by the five years it took us to sit down to bilateral talks on chemical weapons after they were first proposed by President Nixon in 1969.
Washington's reluctance to return to bilateral talks is increasingly perceived as a sign of US insincerity about chemical weapons arms control, as is the administration's dual-track, ''carrot and stick'' approach to arms control and modernization. Further doubts are instilled by our policy, only just overturned, to deny a negotiating mandate to our representatives in Geneva (without which they can only talk in a noncommittal way).
Success now in these talks could rid the world of the specter of one of the most horrid of man's inventions. It could also create an atmosphere conducive to arms control successes on other fronts. Failure could precipitate dangerous proliferation, extensive troubles for NATO, and a further erosion of US prestige abroad. Our commitment must be unflagging.