ARMS talks between the United States and the Soviet Union can be difficult for the public to follow. The factors are complex: Distrust among the parties is but one aspect of the superpowers' basic antagonism; offensive weapons of varied range, launch mode, and theater must be considered, plus new defensive weapons programs; the two political systems are at different phases of their own cycles, one with a new leader just consolidating his power, the other with an elected leader facing the horizon of a limited eight-year term; much of the public rhetoric, intended to shove the other side off balance, carries with it its own distortions.
Yet it seems so self-evident that agreement on arms would be superior to continued disagreement that the public naturally inclines toward optimism and wonders why progress is not faster. The conviction abides that if both superpowers approach Round 2 of the arms talks in Geneva tomorrow with integrity -- in goals, proposals, and procedures -- an accord remains possible.
Public officials have their own visible role in maintaining this integrity of approach. But so does the public have a responsibility: to maintain a climate of honesty, discernment, and patience, as individuals, which can help set the realm of expectations in which leaders and negotiators must operate.
Standing pat seems to be the opening posture on both sides as Round 2 begins. If the United States wants to get something going, it should consider restraining some of the thrust of its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) system in return for some paring back of Soviet offensive might, some analysts contend. If Moscow wants an agreement, it should encourage an offensive-defensive deal to strengthen the hands of moderates in the Reagan administration, others say.
The sense of delay has other causes. There is the feeling that a breakthrough will come not on the shores of Lake Geneva, but rather in the context of a direct Reagan-Gorbachev meeting, which has not been set. Western Europe's deliberations over joining in the American SDI program or the nebulous French ``Eureka'' defensive weapons research proposal, or both, allows Mr. Gorbachev an opening for sowing more confusion among the Western allies, an opening he may be in no hurry to relinquish. For those on the American side distrustful of an agreement, waiting for Moscow to respond to what was left on the table at the close of Round 1 runs down the clock on this administration's arms control watch.
We argued recently that the administration should consider creating a broad arms control front, creating a bipartisan and bicameral approach that would help insulate negotiations from the pressures of time and the potential distractions of American election cycles. If talks can take a decade, it makes sense to put them on a footing where integrity of position, and patience, can be rewarded, and not allowed to be crowded by time.
Government is the way peoples organize themselves. Officials are designated to carry out the public's business -- in the case at hand, for arms control. The public's responsibility as individuals, however, does not end at this point. Through careful monitoring of events, through weighing charge and countercharge for what may be true, through prayerful, quiet listening for the right spirit of agreement, a people collectively does its part to support concrete steps toward world peace.