This is another of those quietly important moments in world history. The opportunity now exists to make breakthroughs in arms control on two fronts: long-range nuclear weaponry, and intermediate range nuclear weapons in Europe.
In the wake of the Soviet downing of KAL Flight 7 President Reagan has better prospects for gaining from Congress those tougher measures - like MX production - he said he would need to get the Soviets to negotiate seriously on arms control. Despite riled surface contacts between the two superpowers, a case can be made that Mr. Reagan's negotiators are in a better position now to get results.
A special urgency for arms progress exists today. The United States and the Soviet Union are poised to deploy a new and generally much more sophisticated tier of weaponry. First step in this action would be US deployment of the intermediate range Pershing II missile in West Germany in December.
Deployment of these weapons would enormously complicate the task of verifying an arms agreement, as explained in an article on page 12 of this newspaper. Thus , as with each new arms development in the past, it would render more complex the task of arms control.
Yet the deeper challenges to arms control are not really technological. The imminent arms escalation makes it most important that the world discover how to get at the fundamental issues:
How do nations achieve the willingness and ability to gain enough trust gradually to reduce their arsenals? How do nations attain the confidence they must have to make such a mutual move? And how do nations gain knowledge to a certainty of their own inner strengths apart from military might?
When the Soviet Union shot down KAL Flight 7, it unwittingly gave President Reagan more time domestically and probably internationally to come up with proposals toward arms control. As is usual in moments of international crisis, Congress and the public have shown strong support for the President's firm stand on KAL 7, and this support to a certain extent will carry over into other areas of presidential action.
Downing of the plane made it virtually certain that President Reagan would get from Congress two actions he most wanted but which previously were in doubt: approval of MX missile production, and Senate rejection of the House-passed nuclear freeze resolution. Just this week the Senate Foreign Relations committee voted 10 to 7 against the freeze, andsent it to the Senate floor where it also is expected to be defeated.
Ideas now are being offered from outside the administration on what the US might propose to prod forward negotiations now going on in Geneva on intermediate range missiles in Europe. One set of proposals will be volunteered to the administration next week by former arms control negotiators Paul Warnke and Gerard Smith. Other arms reduction plans have been proffered by specialists who deal with a major problem in these talks: whether to count British and French missiles.
Early in October, US and Soviet negotiators are to resume, also in Geneva, their START talks dealing with long-range nuclear missiles; they have been in recess since August. A major gap exists between the positions of the two sides despite recent indications of flexibility on both parts.
The Democratic party this week set forth a broad group of ideas on arms control. Included were a call for a mutual and verifiable freeze on testing, production, and deployment of nuclear warheads and missiles; and a substantial decrease in US and Soviet nuclear arsenals.
A determined effort needs to be made by the US to put forth realistic proposals toward achieving mutual arms control when START resumes. It is an effort which needs the support of all Americans.