Arms control as theater

''We're offering the most sweeping arms control proposals in history, from reducing nuclear arms to banning chemical weapons.'' President Ronald ReaganRadio broadcast (April 7, 1984)

With so many arms limitation offers and initiatives by both superpowers over the past 21/2 years, one is bound to ask why there hasn't been more solid accomplishment.

The current negotiating scene is reminiscent of the 1940s and '50s, when the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies clogged the United Nations calendar with proposals and counterproposals and the airwaves with rhetoric. Yet , not a single agreement on weapons of mass destruction was signed and ratified until the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. That was more an outgrowth of scientific cooperation during the International Geophysical Year than of security negotiations.

Following the Antarctic Treaty, there was steady progress: the Hot-Line Agreement; treaties for a Limited Nuclear Test Ban, Outer Space, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Seabed Arms Control, a Latin American nuclear-weapons-free zone; the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the companion Interim Offensive Weapons Agreement (SALT I); treaties to limit atmospheric nuclear tests; a convention on inhumane weapons (as yet unratified by the US); and the 1979 SALT II Treaty which improved offensive limits in Salt I.

Accompanying this were agreements on provocative incidents at sea, measures to reduce the risk of and prevent nuclear war, and limitations on environmental modification and biological and toxin weapons, as well as talks on radiological, chemical, and antisatellite weapons and on mutual and balanced force reductions (MBFR). Of these initiatives MBFR remains.

What distinguishes the years between 1959 and 1979 is that arms control was seriously pursued as an essential component of Western security policy. Before and afterward, however, superpower security negotiations have been treated as media theater, a public relations game designed to woo popular opinion but not to advance security or manage the nuclear dilemma.

The hallmarks of arms control as theater are publicly announced proposals that seem equitable but leave out relevant categories of forces, frequent new negotiating initiatives, dramatic gestures such as walking out of talks, press conferences, and media events to describe the serious commitment of one's own side and the stubborn unwillingness of the other to negotiate seriously.

Serious negotiations, on the other hand, are characterized by minimum comment on proposals, progress, or the character of either side's negotiating position and tactics; by regular talks conducted without fanfare; and by proposals based on experience in prior discussion.

In the 1940s and '50s the US at first enjoyed a monopoly on nuclear weapons and then a margin of superiority. Today, the US is in a position of uneasy parity, facing a Soviet Union with a vastly improved military-technological base - as underscored by the latest edition of the Defense Department's ''Soviet Military Power'' - and with an unabated determination not to play second fiddle to the US in long- or medium-range nuclear forces.

Now both are on the threshold of a new era in military technology. We will soon see intercontinental ballistic missiles yield to so-called low-observables - supersonic cruise missiles configured with signature-reducing or ''stealth'' technology. We will move from the militarization to the weaponization of space. The changing technology of command and control - its greater speed and automaticity - will provide a potential powder trail for igniting nuclear conflict, rather than constraining it.

In these conditions the imperatives for serious security negotiations acquire greater urgency. Always supportive of arms limitation, Western countries are more concerned than ever to constrain the nuclear menace. But they do not know what that means concretely and this plays to demagoguery on the left and right.

Nuclear arms limitation cannot be achieved by offers that seek to constrain an adversary's forces without reciprocal restraint, that aim primarily at prying from Congress the funding for an accelerated arms competition and that are designed, fundamentally, to shift the onus for the failure of negotiations to the other party. Yet that has been the character of recent US proposals for limiting both nuclear and chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, US security continues to decline from this debasing of the currency of arms control.

William H. Kincade is executive director of the private Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own.

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