A fresh start for US-Soviet talks

THE meeting of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko and US Secretary of State George P. Shultz in Geneva Jan. 7 and 8 to renew arms control talks will at least end the unfortunate year-long hiatus due to the Soviet boycott of INF and START talks.

The announced aim is ambitious: to reach ''accords on the entire complex of questions concerning nuclear and space weapons.'' But the initial meetings can only be exploratory; at most they can fix a framework for pursuing actual negotiations which are bound to be lengthy even if both sides are serious.

At one level both probably are. The Soviets seem genuinely concerned about the President's ''star wars'' initiative and perhaps the US weapons buildup in general. And there is little reason to doubt that President Reagan would like history to record him as having bolstered peace.

But whether either side is prepared to compromise to reach agreements is a harder question. Soviet leader Konstantin U. Chernenko speaks of reviving the detente of the 1970s, which was badly oversold by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. But the disillusion with the Soviet military buildup and actions to expand its influence hardly make that an attractive model in the US.

But what is Mr. Reagan willing to trade for Soviet reductions or restraint? That is unclear. He may be following Mr. Shultz rather than the Defense Department presently, but the tough choices are yet to come. Will Reagan decide to give up ''star wars,'' or to cut back on strategic systems like the MX, B-1, Stealth, Trident II, or cruise missiles in exchange for Soviet concessions? For such decisions the President would have to become more involved and overrule his Defense advisers (and others).

If serious negotiations do get under way, we would be wise to keep in mind some key realities:

* Arms control will not solve our nuclear predicament. Much of the pressure for negotiations springs from understandable concern about the huge size of nuclear arsenals and fear of nuclear war. Agreements could have many benefits: They could lessen uncertainties about the programs of the other side, encourage less vulnerable systems, even reduce inventories. But any conceivable agreement will still leave vast nuclear stockpiles, and will not banish the specter of nuclear war. Our fate is to live with nuclear deterrence as the basis of peace (if we are fortunate); arms control may buttress it but cannot replace it.

* We should be clear about our negotiating aims. In part this means public (and official) understanding of the point just made in order to avoid false hopes. But choices need to be made among even possible objectives. Making weapons less vulnerable on both sides should have high priority, in the interest of stability. Hence the modernizing of weapons should probably be channeled rather than wholly forbidden. Our positions should, of course, reflect our interests, but to be accepted and to endure, any agreement must benefit both sides.

* Verification is essential but cannot be foolproof. In the absence of trust, we must verify compliance. Yet inspection by satellites or even on-site cannot be certain of detecting every violation, as opponents of agreements often stress. In terms of security, however, that is not the proper standard. The need is to detect any violation before it could significantly change the military balance or impair security, or in time to redress any imbalance.

* The awkward issue of linkage to other Soviet conduct cannot be ducked. Relations with the Soviet Union are antagonistic and competitive and will remain so indefinitely. Despite this, however, both sides share the interest in survival and avoiding a nuclear holocaust. Arms control seeks to advance this common interest, but conflicts and rivalry will continue in other areas. Of course, our total policy should impose constraints on Soviet expansion. If arms control is to be pursued, however, it has to be somewhat divorced from the other competition to obtain the benefits in security. But in some cases, like the Afghan invasion, the strain is too great.

* Patience in negotiations is indispensable. They are bound to be slow and contentious. Democratic pressures for rapid results put our representatives at a disadvantage. Ideally, both sides would treat reducing the danger of nuclear war , increasing stability, and cutting armaments and spending as common problems for which both sides would seek the best solutions. Someday perhaps arms control will be approached in those terms, but that has not been the case so far. Each side seeks its own advantage, yielding only what it must to get the concessions it most desires. Hence impatience can be costly.

Finally, we should recognize that arms control, although useful and necessary , is only one portion of a complete policy toward the Soviet Union. It must be kept in perspective. That is well done in the recent statement on ''Managing East-West Conflict'' by an international group of former political leaders and others, organized by the Aspen Institute, which offers a sensible and balanced framework for a comprehensive East-West policy. The joint statement is realistic both in its appraisal of Soviet purposes and prospects, and in its proposals for action to manage and improve relations with the USSR. In his second term, the President has the opportunity to develop a consensus on a middle-of-the road East-West policy along these lines. He would serve the nation well by doing so.

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