It is to be noted this week that President Ronald Reagan in Washington and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow continued to say rude and accusatory things about each other. But they also did essential business with each other. This business came in the form of an exchange of captured spies in Berlin and a decision in Washington to keep honoring SALT II.
The SALT II decision was accompanied by ritualistic accusations of cheating and deception. Mr. Reagan asserted a series of Soviet violations of the agreement. Mr. Gorbachev retorted that Reagan was really trying to scuttle the arms control process. But the essential fact is that Reagan decided to keep on with SALT II in spite of being on record as calling it a ``fatally flawed'' document.
It is of course ``flawed'' from both American and Soviet points of view. But it is also a lid on the number of missiles and warheads that each aims at the other. Without it there would be more such unpleasant objects on the launching pads in both countries. And without continuation of this lid there would be a sudden rush of new missiles and warheads to new launching pads in both countries.
While each side accuses the other of violations of SALT II, these accusations do not include a charge of exceeding the authorized number of missiles and warheads.
Washington's decision to abide with SALT II is particularly interesting. It represents a defeat within the administration for those who have always pushed for an end to all peaceful intercourse with the Soviets. The political right in the Reagan camp believes that the US should be outbuilding the Soviets in weapons, conducting unremitting economic warfare against them, and avoiding all negotiations on the grounds that any result of negotiation would give some benefit to Moscow.
This view is held passionately, consistently, and actively both among right-wing Reagan constituents from the outside and by strategically placed people inside the government. Their leading advocate at White House councils is Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
Foreign offices should note that the decision taken at the White House to abide with SALT II was reached after the professional side of the Pentagon, i.e. the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was recorded in favor of observance.
In other words the pressure for breaking out from under SALT II restraints did not come from the military side of the Pentagon. It came from the civilian side, which speaks for the ultra-right of Reagan's political constituency. When Mr. Weinberger made his case against SALT II in the decisive meeting of the National Security Council, he was speaking not for the generals and admirals but for the ideological right in the political spectrum.
Reagan accompanied his decision to continue with the arms control process by asserting that US observance will be linked to Soviet observance. He will feel free to authorize matching or parallel deviations from the rules where he thinks the Soviets are deviating. This is a sop to the neoconservatives and other hawks within the Reagan camp. It will probably also be used by both nations to justify development of a new mobile-type missile to carry a single warhead. Both are headed in that direction. Such a weapon may ultimately take over the main deterrent role from the present fixed-base missiles.
Rapid development in missile accuracy has tended to render obsolete the big missiles in fixed silos.
The news of late has cast light on the underlying reason why both Gorbachev and Reagan continue to stay with arms control in spite of their dislike for some of the existing rules and distaste for doing business with each other over future rules. Both face economic difficulties.
Reagan cannot be sure that if he scrapped arms control he would be able to get enough funds from Congress to be sure of winning a new arms race. Congress is newly reluctant to approve all the funds Weinberger wants.
On Tuesday, Gorbachev delivered probably the most candid speech heard in Moscow since Nikita Khrushchev told the truth about Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. That speech was supposedly secret and only gradually seeped out. Gorbachev's speech was on his country's economic plight and was for public consumption. He hammered home the shortcomings of the present economic system. He said there must be a ``profound restructuring'' of it. ``We produce more steel than any other country and yet we are chronically short of metal,'' he said.
Behind his words is the fact that the Soviet economy has slowed to an annual growth rate below 2 percent -- nearly stagnation. It contrasts with spectacular growth in China where the rate is said to be better than 10 percent.
While China booms and the Soviet Union stagnates, the US falters. US economic growth was excellent during the first half of 1984, but slipped in the second half and dropped to a startling low of 0.7 percent during the first quarter of this year. Slow growth means a fall below expectations in federal revenue and less money available for arms. Hence, there is more need for arms control than would be the case if the US economy were still booming at a growth rate like that in China.
So Washington and Moscow reluctantly work at arms control because neither can afford an unlimited arms race, and certainly not with China growing faster economically than either. Which of the three economies will be strongest by the year 2000? Both Reagan and Gorbachev have to think earnestly about that.