RONALD Reagan's decision to continue the policy of not undercutting the SALT II agreement is both courageous and wise. It is courageous because the President was certainly aware that he would have to accept a lot of criticism from his own right-wing constituency. More than political expediency was at stake. Mr. Reagan is known to be emotionally committed to many of the old loyalists. In addition, it was certainly not easy for him to take a step that goes contrary to his earlier descriptions of the SALT II treaty as ``fatally flawed'' and more generally speaking of anything smacking of an accommodation of the ``evil empire.'' The decision was similarly inherently wise. That is not so much because a continuing compliance with the unratified 1979 strategic weapons deal is likely to ensure a breakthrough in arms control negotiations currently conducted in Geneva. Positions of the two sides remain far apart on about every major issue on the table. And it would require a considerable display of Soviet flexibility and ingenuity at this point to allow progress. The common wisdom in Washington is that now, after Mr. Reagan's demonstrated willingness to go ``an extra mile,'' the ball is clearly in the Soviet court. But there is no certainty that Moscow will see things the same way.
Yet regardless of the Kremlin's response, the President made an important contribution to American national security. First, the NATO cohesion has been enhanced. The allies, with no exception, communicated to the administration their interest in continuing US compliance with SALT II. One is entitled to question their judgment. But these are the principal allies America has, and it makes little sense to behave in a manner that offers opportunities to the Politburo to exploit contradictions among the West.
Second, the US Congress made abundantly clear that its support of Ronald Reagan's ambitious defense programs is contingent upon the President's commitment to arms control. To throw SALT II down the drain would definitely damage the administration's ability to win approval for military appropriations. And what could be worse than a situation where the United States has neither arms control nor strong defense?
Finally, the Soviet Union is behind the United States in technology, but is more than able to hold its own in the strategic weapons numbers game. As the Joint Chiefs of Staff have warned, in the absence of SALT II constraints a superior Soviet missile production capability, coupled with a superior throw-weight of Soviet heavy missiles, could lead to a significant Soviet advantage in quantity of warheads. Conversely, opponents of SALT II among Pentagon civilians failed to explain what specific systems they intend to build if the SALT II regime is allowed to collapse.
The President deserves particular admiration for opting for a straightforward compliance rather than a ``gray area'' approach advocated by some of his advisers eager to avoid a conflict with the right wing. Face it: Putting a Poseidon nuclear submarine into a dry dock instead of dismantling its ballistic missiles, as required by the treaty, would have been an embarrassing and counterproductive cop-out. The Soviets could have been relied upon to derive some propaganda mileage by screaming about an alleged US violation. And from the military standpoint, it is surely better to refit the Poseidon sub with cruise missiles -- as the Russians do -- or to turn it into an attack boat than to keep it frozen at a dry dock.
Mr. Reagan acted presidential at no cost to American interests. The Soviets are not off the hook. They were told that future violations may trigger US ``proportional responses.'' And future US compliance is connected with the progress in Geneva. Most important, it is not just appeasement and unilateral disarmament hiding behind idle threats, as Sen. Steven Symms (R) of Idaho has charged. On the contrary: The United States will continue one program that will potentially violate SALT II, namely the development of a single-warhead Midgetman missile. But the testing of Midgetman is still several years away. Also, the Soviets are in a poor position to complain, since they're about to test a roughly similar missile of their own.
In short, Mr. Reagan has succeeded in having it both ways: saving the arms control regime and contributing to US defenses. That is effective governing at its best.
But while paying a well-deserved tribute to the President, do not hold your breath for a quick deal in Geneva. There are no reasons to be euphoric. No further arms control concessions are likely to come from the administration unless the Soviets come forward with some drastically new proposals. To do so would be out of character for the Soviet leadership, not known for ingenuity at the bargaining table. Furthermore, since the Kremlin was aware that the United States had neither the capability nor the intention to go much beyond limits anyway, the announcement about the continuing US compliance will not necessarily trigger much gratitude among the hard-nosed Soviets. That is especially true if the President uses his new clout with the Congress to push for additional appropriations for the MX missile and particularly for the Strategic Defense Initiative.
It will be gratifying if Mikhail Gorbachev and his associates interpret Ronald Reagan's decision as an opportunity, and respond in a meaningful, open-minded fashion. But even if they don't, the United States will be in a stronger position both to negotiate and to compete. Quite an accomplishment.
Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.