IT was the final stage of the arms control negotiations with the Soviets in Helsinki, Finland. The US government, preparing for President Nixon to journey to Moscow, ordered its negotiators to give in on an important point. But the negotiators, contrary to their instructions, pressed for a final provision. Even after Mr. Nixon arrived in Moscow to sign the agreement, the Americans held out for one more day. The Soviets capitulated. On May 2, 1972, Nixon and Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev signed the ABM (antiballistic missile) treaty -- which included the provision the US negotiators had so persistently sought.
The incident was a rarity. US negotiators in arms control talks generally hew scrupulously to their instructions. ``The negotiator cannot change a position,'' says Paul Warnke, who negotiated the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), during the Carter administration. ``He is basically a mouthpiece for his government.''
As the United States and the Soviet Union prepare to resume nuclear and space arms talks in Geneva on March 12, American arms experts who have sat across the table from the Soviets make other observations about US-Soviet negotiation. `More like a diplomatic exchange'
For instance, the word ``negotiation'' is almost a misnomer, say veteran negotiators, because both sides are circumscribed. The negotiating positions and day-by-day exchanges are controlled by the respective capitals and, as a negotiation builds momentum, it is the White House and the Politburo that intervene to make the final decisions.
``It's not like a labor negotiation or buying real estate,'' says Gerard S. Smith, who negotiated the SALT I pact and the ABM treaty. ``You're a `guided missile,' trying to present your government's position. It's more like a diplomatic exchange. In the end it is the secretary of state who intervenes. I don't know of any case where an agreement was decided at the middle level.''
In SALT I, says Mr. Smith, Soviet negotiator Vladimir Semyonov had to get direct instructions from Moscow, and much of his ``negotiating'' was done by reading from cards. ``I was almost in the same spot,'' Smith says. ``Only once or twice could I get out of my instructions.''
It is because a chief negotiator has so little room for maneuvering that Mr. Warnke sought simultaneously to be the head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. ``I wanted that so I could develop positions,'' he says.
Warnke notes that the Soviet government does not have an interagency system as does the US government, and therefore everything has to be decided by the Politburo. In May 1977, he recalls, a decision was needed on going beyond SALT II into SALT III. ``They couldn't handle it,'' he says.
When any set of negotiations begins, the Soviets put on the table a position that will get them all they want -- i.e., a position that ends up not being negotiable. The US, for its part, is under more constraint to put forward a negotiable position.
``[The Soviets'] initial position is self-serving, because they have no problem with public opinion,'' says another highly experienced negotiator, a member of the SALT I team. ``We do have a problem with public opinion, and so there has to be a position which (1) will preserve our interests and be a decent bargaining position but (2) also look credible to our public and be of interest to the Russians.''
Lt. Gen. Edward Rowny (ret.), who headed the US delegation to the aborted Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and is now a special adviser for the coming Geneva talks, says the Soviets usually wait for the US to take the lead. ``On occasion they put forth a position and try to come in first with a treaty, as with SALT II, but most of the time they are reactive, though that's not a black-and-white thing.''
``We are the leaders in analysis,'' says a former deputy to General Rowny in the START negotiations. ``We always have more detailed ideas, while they're much more likely to have a broader, less nailed-down proposal than we.''
The unnamed SALT I negotiator cited above describes the Soviets as ``very aggressive and demanding.'' ``They put forth a position that will serve their interests and back it up with public propaganda appeals and support -- to the point where our options are reduced and theirs expanded,'' he says. ``That's not a complaint. It's simply the way they operate.'' No `what if?'
Smith says there is little ``what if?'' in a negotiation -- for instance, one negotiator hypothetically suggesting, ``If I get my government to agree to X position, would you get your government to accept it?'' The classic example of this was the July 1982 ``walk in the woods'' between US negotiator Paul Nitze and his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky, in the deadlocked talks in Geneva on medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe. In that instance, both governments turned down the ``initiative'' of their negotiators.
In SALT II, Warnke says, it was difficult to get Mr. Semyonov to speculate. All the ``what if?'' was done by Soviet ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin, or by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. They alone had free-wheeling discussions.
``The key lesson is that you can't count on getting anywhere if only two sets of negotiators face each other,'' Warnke says. ``You need contact at high-level meetings. The negotiators can find the roadblocks, but it's a dual process that also requires [the involvement of] the secretary of state and foreign minister.''
Past negotiators feel that Americans do not sufficiently put themselves in Moscow's place and fully understand where the Soviet leaders think their interests lie. The US tends to be concerned about what is best for it.
``There's no point just putting out stuff the other side can't accept,'' Warnke says. ``This requires that you know a great deal about their force structure and the areas where they should be prepared to give up. So you have to try to figure out what the other guy has to come away with. There's no point having an unbalanced agreement -- the other side will not sign an agreement that leaves it worse off. The major part of negotiating is to try to figure out what they are trying to say to you.''
Other longtime negotiators take a somewhat different view. According to the unnamed member of the SALT I delegation, the primary quality needed is to understand what an arms negotiation is about. It is different from the conduct of foreign relations, in which the US tries to find what accommodates the other party.
``Here you have to have a more precise approach to build a case that supports your own interest,'' he says, ``because without a strong case for your own interest you will never get a compromise.''
When Washington and Moscow first began negotiating on arms control, the Americans noticed that it was the Soviet military delegates who knew most about Soviet nuclear arms programs; they even asked the US side not to disclose technical details in the presence of their civilian delegates, who in the Soviet system were kept in the dark about many sensitive matters. But today there is greater sophistication; the civilians are better informed, and they exercise more authority.
``Now the civilians are much more in control,'' Warnke says. ``That's one of the changes that has taken place as a result of arms talks. It's no longer possible for a military man to leave the hall to have discussions.''
Rowny says the Soviet military also has become more sophisticated, and that the most substantive exchanges now take place between both sides' military delegates and less between the civilians. ``The role has changed,'' he says, ``so we have to raise the quality of our military [representatives].'' `11th-hour negotiators'
Moreover, contrary to general belief, the Soviets understand the American system and political process. ``Gromyko probably knows more about the American system than I do,'' Smith says.
Because of the nature of their system, the Soviets also tend to engage more in polemics, even trying to ``brainwash'' the American delegation on some pet theme. The American temptation is to return fire with fire, but, says Smith, ``that doesn't get you anywhere.''
An infinite amount of patience is required in any negotiation with the Soviets, all US negotiators agree.
``You have to understand that they will repeat, repeat, repeat, and try to wear you down,'' Rowny explains. ``They are 11th-hour negotiators, and you have to know their techniques. They ask many questions and say they don't understand, even when they do. They try to find wedges or soft spots. They are long-suffering, patient people who tell little and want to know a lot and generally do because of the openness of our society. They quote back positions from our newspapers, and you're at a disadvantage because you can't quote back much to them. They have a lot of access, and they use those arguments to show that there are different points of view in our society.''
``It's hard to explain a pluralistic society to them,'' says Rowny, who is known as an arms control hard-liner. ``But I represented the President, I would say, and he decided so and so. That's hard for them to understand.''
Sometimes progress is made less in the formal negotiating sessions than in private get-togethers, where conversation is not on the record. ``You can find out the areas in which they're prepared to move,'' says Warnke. ``Sometimes in cocktail parties the members of the Soviet delegation were told to go talk with me and drop a hint.''
During the START talks, the normal pattern was to hold two formal sessions a week, in which formal statements of about one hour were exchanged. Then the delegation members would meet with their counterparts for several hours in nonplenary sessions. There would also be one or two social engagements a week. ``The real exchanges take place between the counterparts and in informal meetings,'' says Rowny, whose counterpart was Soviet chief negotiator Viktor Karpov.
Do the Soviets and Americans become friends?
All the US negotiators interviewed agree that there develops a mutual respect. But friendship is too strong a word.
``You're bound to develop a relationship when you work together so long,'' says Smith. ``I had respect for Semyonov, a man of large learning. . . . You realize they are human beings.''
``There is civility, but it would be wrong to think that a Soviet would allow friendship to interfere or bring him around to your position,'' says Rowny. ``What might be told you over a drink can be completely forgotten. Socializing does not carry over into business. It's not as if we were members of the same society or had the same values.''
Does it matter where the negotiations take place? Yes, say some negotiators; as in a sports game, the hometown team has an advantage. ``You do better if you negotiate on your own territory,'' says the SALT I veteran. ``The Russians try to have the critical negotiation be in Moscow or Vladivostok. That's an advantage, as in a football game.''
This shows the importance of the last stages of a negotiation. In SALT I, Semyonov once told an American negotiator that about one-third of the work in an important negotiation is done in the first two months, when you lay out the problem; one-third in the next two years; and one-third in the last 20 minutes. ``He was wrong,'' the American quips. ``It was the last four days.'' Photos: Americans and Soviets go back to the table March 12 (photo credits: AP; UPI; SVEN SIMON): Salt I: US chief negotiator Gerard Smith (r.) with his Soviet counterpart, Vladimir Semyonov, in 1972: both had strict instructions Salt II: The treaty negotiated by Paul Warnke was signed in 1979 but never ratified; a SALT III plan stalled in the Politburo INF TALKS: The `walk in the woods' of Paul Nitze (l.) and Yuli Kvitsinsky in 1982 was a rare case of delegates taking the initiative START TALKS: Edward Rowny (l.) and Soviet negotiator Victor Karpov, in Geneva in 1982: after-hours bargaining was the most productive