Now that American cruise and Pershing II missiles have been deployed in Europe and the Soviets have walked out of the Geneva INF talks as promised it seems a good time to ask why our legislators and NATO leaders have been so gullible to the Reagan Administration arguments for weapons systems as bargaining chips in arms control negotiations. There is little evidence that these ''bargaining chips'' can fulfill any of the missions for which they are touted. They do not:
* Cause recalcitrant adversaries to negotiate.
* Soften the adversary's negotiating position.
* End up being cashed in in exchange for weapons systems on the other side.
* Or facilitate the conclusion of arms control agreements not negotiable otherwise.
Evidence from arms control experiences with the Soviet Union overwhelmingly suggests that US weapons systems acquired to beef up bargaining strength will:
* Delay the start of bargaining by the other side.
* Toughen the adversary's negotiating stance.
* Remain as part of the permanent arsenal.
* Ensure that an agreement will be at higher force levels than would otherwise have been possible.
It is worth examining the INF case, where the worst damage might yet be averted. NATO's ''double decision'' in December 1979 to deploy and limit medium-range US missiles in Western Europe, was rationalized on two grounds: to reassure the allies of the American security guarantee, and to provide incentive for the Soviet Union to negotiate limits on SS-20 missiles.
Polarization within the US and the new lows to which confidence in American leadership and allegiance to NATO have fallen, in the five European countries which have accepted the new missiles, testify to the fallacy of the first argument. But what effect has the double decision had on Soviet willingness to negotiate, and on Soviet bargaining tactics?
There was no Soviet reluctance to negotiate limits on the SS-20 in the late 1970s. During the negotiation of SALT II, both sides agreed that in the expected Salt III talks they would deal with limits on US medium range, nuclear-capable, aircraft and cruise missiles, and on the USSR's SS-20 missile and Backfire bomber. In May, 1978, Leonid Brezhnev traveled to Bonn to assure West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt that SS-20 limits would be on the SALT III agenda.
As NATO debated possible hardware responses to the SS-20 through 1978 and 1979, Soviet and East European leaders grew visibly alarmed. In an obvious effort to preempt a NATO deployment decision, in October l979 Brezhnev offered - on condition no new medium-range NATO systems were deployed - to reduce the deployment of Soviet medium-range missiles and begin negotiations immediately on this category of weapons. At the time fewer than 100 SS-20 missiles were targeted on Western Europe.
The US could have cashed in cruise and Pershings right then, but NATO's collective leadership lumbered on to its double decision. The deployment package was tempered with an offer to include the new systems in SALT III limits and a promise to remove one old warhead for each new cruise and Pershing II warhead deployed.
Nevertheless, the Soviets denounced the package, claiming all basis for their earlier offer had been undermined by such coercive tactics. Chancellor Schmidt eventually persuaded Brezhnev to change his mind and bilateral talks were begun in October 1980 but suspended when President Carter lost his reelection bid, not to be resumed by the Reagan administration until late 1981. The effect of the double decision was to delay serious negotiations for over two years, while the Soviets more than doubled the SS-20 threat to Western Europe.
At the Geneva talks on medium-range missiles, the Soviets first offered to reduce their SS-20s targeted on Europe to no more than the number of NATO missiles targeted on the Soviet Union, i.e. from 243 to 162. More recently the Soviets offered to reduce the SS-20s targeted on Western Europe to 140. These are concessions of sorts and justify an intensified diplomatic effort on our part in Geneva.
The point, however, is that the Soviets' best offer since the double decision is not as good a bargain as they offered in October 1979. Thus, the bargaining chips, true to form, delayed the start of serious negotiations and toughened the Soviet position. If all cruise and Pershings are deployed, they surely will generate Soviet countermeasures, leading either to a breakdown in the INF talks and no agreement at all, or one which merely codifies the new systems on both sides.
Badly needed at this juncture are mature NATO leaders who can move to salvage an interim INF agreement based on the status quo ante of October 1979. A multilateral START negotiation should then set ceilings on the strategic forces of all five nuclear powers as suggested recently by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. This would meet NATO's goal of limiting the Soviet threat to Western Europe, the Japanese and Chinese concern about Soviet missiles targeted on Asia, and the Soviet goal of limiting other countries' forward-based nuclear weapons around its perimeter.
This kind of agreement could most easily be negotiated under a general nuclear moratorium. Such an effort would do much to restore West European confidence in the US and rekindle hope in the arms control process.