THE US-Soviet talks in Geneva, the focus of so much interest across the world, are not the only arms-control talks under way. There also are the NATO-Warsaw Pact talks in Vienna on reduction of conventional forces. In Geneva, the negotiations promise to be complex and difficult, especially on the issue of defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles, where the American and Soviet positions are diametrically opposed. If results are slow in coming in Geneva, the space defense issue has a potential for generating divisiveness within the United States and between the United States and its European allies, which could seriously undermine the unity and strength of the Western negotiating position.
By contrast, prospects in Vienna for reaching an early East-West arms control agreement have recently improved. For the past 10 years NATO and Warsaw Pact participants have been slowly inching toward each other's positions; the Soviet Union has just made a useful new move indicating interest in a successful outcome. The Soviets in a new draft treaty have met the Western position on two important points -- the Soviet troops to be reduced in a first phase of US and Soviet ground force manpower reductions would be combat units, and they would be withdrawn to the Soviet Union under international supervision.
With a new leadership intent on internal reform, the Soviet Union may have reasons of its own for wanting an East-West arms control agreement soon, to support and encourage difficult drawn-out negotiations with the United States at Geneva. Now is the time for a Western countermove that could resolve the longstanding dispute on the number of Warsaw Pact forces in Eastern Europe and within a year bring a start in reducing the huge East-West military confrontation in Europe, which each year eats up two-thirds of the world's trillion-dollar expenditure for armed forces.
Up to now, Western participants in Vienna have refused to agree to any reductions in their armed forces until after the disagreement over the total number of Warsaw Pact soldiers stationed in Eastern Europe has been resolved.
But it may be possible to resolve the counting dispute more easily and more effectively on the ground than on the negotiating table -- where the West has pitted its claims of pact strength against Eastern claims in a sterile, theoretical discussion, and where any data agreement achieved would, in any event, only be on paper until verified in the field.
A different way of tackling the data dispute is based on giving priority to field verification over discussion at the negotiating table. It has been made possible by important developments over the last year in the Warsaw Pact position. These include Soviet acceptance in principle of mutual inspection of NATO and pact forces, and of establishing exit-entry posts manned by personnel of the opposing alliance to check movement of forces into and out of Central Europe.
Under this different approach, the West would temporarily suspend its requirement that agreement on data be resolved before any reductions occur. This would permit a limited first reduction, of say, 10,000 men for the United States and 20,000 for the Soviet Union.
In return, the Soviet Union, which refuses to adopt verification measures until there have been actual reductions, would agree to the postreduction exchange of detailed new information on Soviet and United States forces remaining in Central Europe. The USSR would also agree on workable procedures for an annual quota of inspections and other verification measures that could be used to check the number of Soviet soldiers in the area. All this would be put into effect as soon as the first, limited US-Soviet reductions had taken place.
The inspections could, for example, be used on a short-notice sampling basis to help verify the strength of major Soviet units selected by the West. After this first Soviet and American withdrawal the overall level of Warsaw Pact and NATO military personnel remaining in Central Europe would be frozen for the two-year period of this agreement. So would postreduction levels of US and Soviet forces.
If, as is likely, the new approach succeeded and the numbers dispute were finally resolved, participants would move on to agree on further reductions. Even if it did not succeed, there would be no risk to the security of either side through reductions of this limited size, as the arrangement would automatically expire after two years.
It is time to take the Soviets at their word and actually begin on-site inspection of opposing forces. Doing this could not only help resolve a dispute that basically flows from pact secretiveness on military matters and open the road to a first agreement in Vienna. It would also be a breakthrough of immense general significance for arms control and for the Geneva talks themselves. The Vienna negotiations now present a valuable opening for both sides. That opening should be used, soon.
Jonathan Dean, arms control adviser to the Union of Concerned Scientists, was head of the United States delegation to the Vienna force reduction talks from 1978 to 1981.