The risky race for bargaining chips

One of the ironies of our times is that the negotiating tactics of the superpowers in the arms control talks are themselves contributing to the escalation of the arms race which the negotiations are designed to reverse or at least halt.

These tactics are heavily influenced by a preoccupation with bargaining chips. This has reached the point where it sometimes seems that the negotiators are more interested in acquiring the chips than in using them.

A bargaining chip is something which is not particularly useful in any other way and which you can afford to give up in return for a concession from the other side. The American naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, would be a good bargaining chip if the United States and Cuba ever got serious about negotiating their many differences. Guantanamo is something which the US already has and which has long since outlived anything more than marginal usefulness to the Navy.

Quite a different matter is the process of acquiring an expensive and dangerous weapon for the purpose of being able to give it away in arms control negotiations later on. This results in a race to acquire bargaining chips. Nobody ever gives away all his chips so that, if an agreement is eventually reached, all it amounts to is an attempt to stabilize the arms race at a higher level than existed previously. And the process starts all over again.

This applies preeminently to nuclear weapons. It is the principal reason for the drive to install Pershing missiles in Western Europe, a drive which may succeed but which has aroused so much opposition that its success will be at a considerable political price. It is a principal reason for the drive to build the MX, which is such an attractive target that two administrations took years to decide where to put it after it is built. It was a principal reason for the development in the mid-1970s of air-launched cruise missiles which Henry Kissinger wanted more as a bargaining chip than the Air Force wanted as a weapon. (The Air Force would have much preferred the manned B-1 bomber. Now it appears that it will get both, another example of escalation.)

Another reason for the insistence on installing Pershings is as a counter to the Soviet SS-20s which are targeted on Western Europe. But to a considerable extent, these SS-20s are themselves bargaining chips from the Soviet point of view. There are far more of them than the Soviets need for any military purpose; so a good many could be given away without reducing the threat to Western Europe one iota. Similarly, to a considerable extent the Pershings would duplicate other American nuclear weapons already in place in Western Europe. Again, they could be given away without losing anything - or reducing the threat to the Soviet Union.

It is frightening to think about where this race for bargaining chips might lead if the superpowers do not get serious about bargaining over what they already have instead of trying to acquire more things to bargain with. What would the Reagan administration do, for example, if the Soviets put some SS-20s in Nicaragua or in Cuba (in the latter case violating the 1962 Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement)? Such a move would rightfully upset Americans in general and would provide a strong reaction from Washington. But, from the Soviet point of view, it would do no more than preserve the symmetry of the mutual threat. SS-20s in Cuba or Nicaragua would be to the US what Pershings in West Germany would be to the Soviet Union - nuclear destruction eight minutes after launch.

It is unlikely that this nightmare will materialize, at least not any time soon. Although the Nicaraguan government is on a slippery slope downward, it is probably not as far gone as the Reagan administration believes and in any event is probably not ready to add to its troubles by acquiescing in the introduction of Soviet missiles. And the Soviets are probably not ready to add to their troubles by tearing up the Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement and precipitating the most serious world crisis since the last time they put missiles in Cuba.

It is not only nuclear weapons which are acquired as bargaining chips. The Reagan administration has revived proposals to develop chemical weapons which were renounced by the Nixon administration. In some respects, these are just as scary as nuclear weapons. They have the added feature that they are a greater threat to civilians than to troops with protective clothing. But the failure to acquire them, the President has said, could ''reduce the Soviet Union's incentive to negotiate seriously.''

The administration has accused the Soviets of using chemical weapons - and biological weapons as well - in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. Independent experts are not entirely convinced by the evidence; but if one gives the administration the benefit of the doubt, then the argument goes that the US has to have these weapons, too, so that the Soviets will be willing to talk.

One would think there was ample incentive already for both sides to talk - and plenty to talk about.

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