Every successful campaign for the presidency since Dwight Eisenhower has capitalized on America's fear of the Soviet Union and its concern about possessing an adequate defense. As each administration came into office, it quickly moderated its polemical rhetoric as diplomatic reality and the awesome potential consequences of nuclear confrontation imposed a more responsible attitude.
The 1984 presidential sweepstakes is shaping up true to form, but with two new aspects. The electorate is more sensitive to the possibility of annihilation and the likelihood that the war-and-peace issue, in the context of nuclear weapons, will play a reversed role in this presidential cycle - the candidate espousing the most conservative, confrontational position will reap the damaging political fallout. This time the critical issue of our time could scramble the political equation, forcing the incumbent President to pose as a proponent of nuclear-stockpile reduction by characterizing his hard-line policies in Geneva as the appropriate route to arms control.
It is ironic that, for all the sentiment and scholarly opinion that has been brought to bear on the nuclear debate, the world is less safe and the prospect of global death is more immediate than ever before. The notion still persists that an agreement to preserve our species from extinction is a bonbon offered to the Russians as a reward for good behavior and, at worst, a traitorous capitulation to the Kremlin.
What is clear as we prepare to hear the intensified rhetoric of the political season is that the presidential contest is a deficient medium; the partisan political competition will not likely do anything more than amplify the national polarization (and consequent paralysis) on the most serious issue we will ever have to face.
The question for the Democratic presidential contenders as well as the President is simply: Which is the more important consideration, developing a national leadership consensus to take to Geneva, or holding on to the defense issue as a political club for the general election?
This may be the rare moment when a seemingly intractable issue can be moved strongly toward resolution by an uncommon act of statesmanship on the part of those who proffer their credentials for our nation's highest office. It is a test worthy of the position being sought.
And how might this be done? Since the present stalemate owes much to the weakness and mediocrity of the political dialogue, the nuclear-arms issue must be moved out of that framework. According to the scenario I would propose, the Democratic candidates would agree among themselves to develop, under the guidance of their designated advisers, a consensus on an approach to general arms control by an agreed date in early spring.
The Democratic position would then be discussed with officials of the administration under ground rules that would preclude mutual criticism and political gamesmanship. If the objective is to reach accord with the Soviet Union and bind our nation to the terms of a worthwhile treaty, an accord between the two major American parties should not be sacrificed for cheap advantage. The administration would include in its bargaining team sent to Geneva Democratic members selected by agreement among presidential candidates as proof that indeed an American consensus does exist. This would reassure our allies, since most of the fissures in the Western alliance derive from the same disparities that would have been represented and worked out within the bipartisan American delegation sent to Geneva.
Political leverage would be preserved by means of an agreed deadline, which could coincide with the beginning of the Republican National Convention. The political vagaries of the general election campaign would not affect the negotiating team in Geneva, which would remain in place until the conclusion of a new round of substantive agreements. An observer committee made up of all other major nuclear powers would be invited to monitor progress and assist in devising a new international covenant for the containment of nuclear weaponry.
Is it conceivable that a contender for the presidency would allow this issue to remake his political calendar? Could it be left off one more time? It is certainly naive to predict that anyone who has thrived in the political arena over many years will suddenly abandon the instincts that have carried him this far and give away a weapon that could win for him the pinnacle of worldly power and recognition. But I do not despair that it could happen, that the nation which calls itself the leader of the free world could produce leaders whose statesmanship would coax a frightened world away from its own extinction and reverse the quickening march to Armageddon.