Arms control: it will take lots of time and effort

DON'T hold your breath expecting arms control breakthroughs during the forthcoming meeting between United States Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Their talks will be about resuming formal dialogue rather than about reaching an actual deal. Substantive arms agreements are still nowhere in sight.

Patience and realism are the ultimate virtues in dealing with the Kremlin, so recognition that the road of negotiation is going to be long and bumpy is no reason for a defeatist attitude. In diplomacy the process is often as important as specific accomplishments. And the process of US-Soviet dialogue is about to be resumed.

True, even after Moscow opted to withdraw from discussions in Geneva a year ago, the superpowers continued informal exchanges of opinion. Before the deployment of US missiles in Europe triggered the Soviet walkout, US and Soviet delegations were involved in two sets of talks, one focusing on strategic weapons and another on intermediate-range systems. Yet, with few exceptions, the White House and the Kremlin were talking through rather than to each other. Each side was involved in public posturing without much regard for the perceptions of its partner at the bargaining table.

Now the Reagan administration seems to have come to the conclusion that it has succeeded in developing an unprecedented leverage, but in the absence of diplomacy, this leverage alone is not enough to move another superpower. The Kremlin, on the other hand, appears to realize that the tactic of boycotting the US does not pay off. The Soviet obstructionism was intended to serve as a sort of shock therapy on West European and American opinion. Instead, it was widely viewed in the West as a nasty but cheap brand of blackmail.

Also, the Politburo is now more open-minded about Ronald Reagan. The Soviets were pleasantly surprised that even after his victory over Walter Mondale, the President continued to emphasize his commitment to a more stable and constructive relationship with the Soviet Union. Even suspicious minds in the Soviet leadership began to entertain the possibility that Mr. Reagan just might be sincere.

Like Mr. Reagan, Konstantin Chernenko is in a stronger position to negotiate. There was an apparent consolidation of the general secretary's political power, enabling him to conduct business with the US. Mr. Gromyko is still influential, but he lacks a personal following in the dominant party apparatus. And Defense Minister Dmitri F. Ustinov is reportedly not well.

Still, voices of caution in the White House and the National Security Council are understandably reluctant to predict arms control agreements anytime soon. Continuing divisions inside the Reagan administration are one problem. Another is the lack - despite Chernenko's resurgence - of a strong leadership in Moscow. But the principal obstacle is that while the US and the USSR are eager to negotiate, their positions are miles apart.

It may be too much to ask arms control to become an exercise in joint US-Soviet nuclear forces management. After all, they are adversaries. Also, because of differences in technology, geography, and doctrines, Soviet and US strategic systems are not alike. More often than not, we have to trade apples for oranges.

Today, the US is primarily preoccupied with a counterforce potential of huge and increasingly accurate Soviet ground-launched missiles. The Soviets are concerned with preventing what they call ''the militarization of outer space.'' They want to stop Mr. Reagan's ''Strategic Defense Initiative.'' Reconciling the two approaches will be very tough. In the past the Kremlin has stubbornly refused to restructure its forces in accordance with US notions of strategic stability. That position is not likely to change. Neither is the President's determination to proceed with research-and-development efforts associated with his vision of defense that will make nuclear missiles obsolete.

Moreover, what the Soviets want to ban is not a specific weapons program but a broad-range research program. Such a ban is inherently unverifiable. Even an on-site inspection would be inadequate, and the Kremlin doesn't agree to it anyway.

Nor is it going to be easy to resolve a dispute over French and British nuclear arsenals. The Soviets are aware that London and Paris plan major nuclear modernization, and they claim that any NATO nuclear weapons should be counted in US-USSR deals. The administration, however, cannot accommodate Moscow without creating ill will among the allies, insisting on their sovereign right to have an independent nuclear deterrence.

But the process of arms control bears fruit even without concrete deals. It helps to maintain foreign policy consensus in the US. The allies feel better when Moscow and Washington are on speaking terms. And it makes sense to reassure the Politburo that the US aims to parley - not to pursue an illusion of nuclear victory.

Incremental deals are still feasible. The point is not to despair if, to conclude them, it takes a lot of time and effort. Meanwhile, a renewed arms control diplomacy will help to absorb the shocks of nuclear competition.

Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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