The superpowers ended their first round of arms control talks in Geneva on Tuesday, leaving a new spiral in the nuclear arms race far more likely than new agreed restraint. In arms control, timing is all. And in April 1985 the timing looks bad.
To be sure, the arms control incentives are unusually strong on both sides -- for Moscow to block President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars''), and for Washington to whittle down the Soviet ``first strike'' potential in heavy missiles.
And there is an unpredictable stimulus to mutual accommodation in the desire of both sides to make any forthcoming summit between Mr. Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a success.
But political realities are such that the ``window of opportunity'' for negotiations is very short -- and is out of sync for Washington and Moscow. Reagan could probably carry off an arms control agreement now if he wished -- but only if he had a deal basically in hand within two years, before he becomes a lame duck. And it is hard to imagine any successor, Republican or Democrat, mustering Reagan's same domestic consensus in 1988 on the very divisive issue of arms control.
In the Soviet Union, though, the time cycle is reversed. The Soviet leader, Mr. Gorbachev, is brand new. Historically new leaders in the Kremlin have always required four or five years to consolidate their power and have not been able to make major foreign-policy initiatives before doing so. Gorbachev is more favorably placed than his predecessors in that he has just named three new members to the Politburo, he has a party congress coming up soon, and he is continuing consolidation along the lines begun by his mentor, the late Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.
Nonetheless, it would require unprecedented speed for Gorbachev to move his colleagues in the next two years (should he wish to do so) to unprecedented concessions in destroying existing nuclear weapons rather than just putting a ceiling on them -- that is, to the kind of comprehensive deal that the 1985 Geneva talks have been established to explore.
Strategic timing is thus working against agreement.
So is tactical timing. Negotiators always try to avoid the disadvantage of seeming more eager to get a deal than their adversaries; in line with this, indications are that both the United States and the Soviet Union so far are clinging to their old positions in the two subgroups on the old topics of offensive strategic weapons and intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
The most conspicuous public example of this was Gorbachev's revived offer of a moratorium on European-theater missile deployment. This was a proposal made by Mr. Andropov and Leonid Brezhnev before him, always with increasingly unfavorable numbers for the West, given the Soviet buildup of SS-20s in the months between successive Soviet moratoriums.
Nor is the Gorbachev moratorium viewed by Western observers as anything more than a holding action. Following Moscow's unsuccessful gamble that European peace movements could block the stationing of NATO's cruise and Pershing II missiles last year, these observers believe, the Kremlin no longer seriously hopes to stop NATO deployments without negotiating hard with Western governments. And intermediate-range missiles in Europe are no longer Moscow's top priority in any case, given the current Soviet alarm about SDI.
The place to look for movement in the arms control talks is therefore the third and new subgroup on space weapons.
Here the situation is more ambiguous. There have been a number of public feelers from Soviet officials, out-of-office Americans, and Europeans about a ``grand bargain'' that could trade off deep cuts in offensive missiles (including the Soviet Union's unique heavy missiles) for some limitation on SDI deployment, probably to defend missile sites only.
Certainly if any comprehensive deal is to be cut, this would seem the likely one. But Reagan administration officials shun such speculation, and it is understood that the Soviets -- despite all their public hints to the contrary -- have not broached this possibility in the six weeks of talks in Geneva.
Such a close observer as Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, co-chairman of the Senate monitoring team for the Geneva talks, considers the informal Soviet probes to be a ``red herring'' and believes the Soviets have no intention of giving up their heavy missiles.
Obversely, the Soviets believe -- as they preach at every opportunity -- that the Reagan administration has no intention of negotiating away SDI deployment, despite all the assurances by US officials that SDI is in fact on the table in Geneva.
The Soviets maintain that such US statements are themselves red herrings -- and so are all the assertions by the State Department's special adviser for arms control, Paul Nitze, that SDI is only in the research stage now and will have to meet tough criteria of cost effectiveness and stability before it would ever by deployed.
What is really going on behind these conciliatory words, the Soviets argue, is that hard-liners in the US are trying to stall on arms control long enough to build a momentum behind SDI that will make extensive deployment of it inevitable in the 1990s.
The further US aim, the Soviets contend, is to overturn the nuclear parity of the 1970s and regain US superiority in order to exert political pressure on Moscow from a ``position of strength.''
There is considerable irony in this complaint, since the Soviets themselves have so far been unwilling to discuss the whole concept of what constitutes strategic stability (as the Americans keep urging them to do), and the Soviets have far less in common with the more accommodating analysis of a Nitze than they do with the more confrontational US enthusiasts of SDI. Both the Soviets and the US SDI promoters place much greater faith in eventual unilateral strategic defense than they do in bilateral restraint and stability.
In this context, too, timing and habit are both working against any meeting of minds in Geneva. In the past, Washington has typically been the inventor, Moscow the modifier, of new ideas that have broken through inertia and vested political interests and led to arms control agreements.
Yet Washington today has little incentive to break out of the nuclear status quo -- not only because of SDI but also because both sides seem convinced that the overall ``correlation of forces'' in the world (in Soviet jargon) currently favors the US rather than the Soviet Union. That is, Washington figures that it has little to lose even if no arms control agreement is reached. The US would prove to be technologically, economically, and financially superior in any open-ended SDI race, it believes -- since the Soviet Union is sluggish technologically, stagnant economically, overextended in Afghanistan, and worried about potential nationalities conflicts domestically.
What this pattern means is that, if there is to be any motion in Geneva, the initiative will probably have to come from the Soviet side. Yet Gorbachev's still tentative political position and the ingrained Soviet conservatism in military affairs make it unlikely that Soviets will come back to the second round of talks in Geneva at the end of May with any breakthrough proposals.