Arms pact door open

The long-anticipated arrival of new US intermediate-range missiles began in Western Europe this week, focusing world attention. Is there still time enough, desire enough, formula enough, for a superpowers arms pact before full NATO deployment and Soviet counterdeployment get under way? We still prefer to think there is.

Both sides, Washington and Moscow, deep down want an agreement now. To accept the cynical view that leaders would deliberately choose to live under the balance of intersifying nuclear terror would lessen one's confidence in the future of the human race.

But the maneuvering over the intermediate nuclear force (INF) talks has been so confusing, the rhetoric so confrontational, that finding an opening for agreement, at least an interim agreement, look difficult indeed.

President Reagan's latest proposal, to limit INF warheads to 420 on each side , is a step forward.It appears to match the Soviets' proposal of 140 launchers, allowing three missiles per launcher. The trouble is, the two sides are counting different missiles. The US count includes the new US missiles headed for Europe and the Soviets' doesn't. The Soviet number includes British and French nuclear arsenals, which the United States still excludes. To get an agreement, the West will have to make some accommodation on the British and French missiles.

US officials have concludd the Soviets are not interested in an agreement before next year. Washington says at the same time that the US intention is to keep talking in Geneva as long as necessary. Should the Soviets talk Oout of the Geneva INF talks as they've threatened, they would have used up whatever leverage the walkout threat gave them.

Demonstrating Western political solidarity remains the chief goal of the NATO missile deployment. US officials emphasize that the three NATO countries deploying the first cruise and Pershing II missiles -- the United Kingdom, Italy , and West Germany -- have all had recent elections that returned pro-deployment governments to power. Deployment, which will come in stages, is meant to show that allied security is as important to the US as is US security.

Western solidarity must be affirmed as the missiles begin to arrive. But there still may be time, even through December, to come up with enough of a pact formula.

Elements like the basic warhead count, Asia/Europe distribution, and inclusion of bombers are already at hand. Canada's Prime Minister Trudeau is out promoting expanded negotiations. Italy's Craxi is talking about deploying some new missiles and then a hold, to give more time for negotiations to continue.There are ways to get out of ending the talks if the will to do so can emerge. Conceivably some agreement is workable if the British and French missiles are accounted for in principle, along with some token new Pershing and cruise deployment.

US officials doubt the Soviets are interested in an agreement by the end of the year or anytime soon. They may calculate: (1) The Soviet leadership is apparently bogged down in its own problems, with Andropov ill and new initiatives hard to generate; (2) after the hard-line rhetorical tiffs with Reagan, the Soviets are not interested in giving him an agreement; (3) tension in West Europe continues to percolate over the missiles, to the Soviets' advantage; (4) the Soviets are waiting to see whether Reagan will decide to run for reelection; and (5) the empirical evidence in Geneva is that the Soviets have been unresponsive to American offers.

The US approach should be based less on what Washington thinks the Soviets are up to -- it doesn't really know -- and more on what the West's own best policy should be. Antideployment sentiment cannot be dismissed out of hand. In West Germany the Bundestag debate on deployment begins next week. In Italy the debate has begun. Britain's Labour Party and West Germany's Social Democrats are already breaking with NATO policy. The US itself will get a heavy dose of nuclear war impressionism with a nationwide telecast this Sunday evening.

The basic question, after NATO solidarity is affirmed, is whether the Reagan administration is more interested in negotiation or in confrontation. It must choose. Has the administration's zest for counterpropaganda, for psychological warfare, provoked the same disposition in its opponent, making further negoiation fruitless?

The best hard calculation may be that no agreement is in the offing. But there is no law, psychological orr diplomatic or whatever, that says no agreement is possible, even in the near term.

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