AS we begin the next round of arms reduction negotiations in Geneva and prepare for the meeting between President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev in November, I am reminded of the debate I participated in at the Oxford Union on the theme: ``There is no moral difference between the foreign policies of the US and the USSR.'' In that debate I pointed out some differences between our systems in internal freedoms of discussion and association, in the decisionmaking process and in military doctrine and goals. We, the beneficiaries of Western democratic tradition, too frequently take for granted the political and individual freedoms we all enjoy. We forget that our freedoms were not always so secure, nor the rule of law so respected. Secure and free, we sometimes ignore the danger posed by a system of governance in which some 13
members of the Politburo virtually exercise absolute control over millions of our fellowmen. We who have never been subjected to the loss of our ``inalienable rights'' find it too difficult to believe that freedom of expression and association could be privileges enjoyed only by the same small closed group that has a monopoly on decisionmaking.
Perhaps we are naive -- perhaps we are deluded. Certainly in the current competitive atmosphere between the Soviets and the West, a massive attempt to delude us is being directed by that small group of 13 men. Nowhere is that more visible than in the current discussion on President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI. I would like to set the record straight, because there are dangerous misconceptions being promulgated about SDI.
The President has summarized the heart of the matter: ``A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.'' The President's determination to preclude nuclear war, or any other major conflict, is the mandate for our current defense program, arms reduction effort, and Strategic Defense Initiative. These are all components of our national security policy, not isolated and independent instruments. Realities and dangerous misconceptions
Clearly, President Reagan wants to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, particularly the most destabilizing ones -- intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The SDI program is directed toward enhancing the security of the United States and our allies. Our safety is inextricably linked as President Reagan noted: ``Their safety and ours are one; no change in technology can, or will, alter that reality.''
In assessing the merits and prospects of the President's SDI-research program, we cannot afford to ignore the lessons of past Soviet behavior, insincerity and lack of restraint.
Through the 1960s until the end of the 1970s, the United States cut its budget for nuclear forces almost every year. Today, the total megatonnage of the US stockpile is only one-fourth the size of our 1967 stockpile. Eighteen years ago, we had one-third more nuclear warheads than we do today. We mistakenly hoped the Soviets would reciprocate. They did not.
While the Soviet Union continued a massive military buildup of nuclear systems and became deeply engaged in strategic defense programs as well, American negotiators, still desiring a semblance of stability, negotiated a SALT II Treaty. Once again, the Soviet Union did not curb its buildup.
Today the Soviets continue to build their missile force and strategic defenses and violate several important SALT and ABM Treaty provisions -- including a ban on concealing telemetry of missile tests and the construction of the Krasnoyarsk radar.
Our good intentions and unilateral actions have not brought stability -- instead we face a more dangerous world. Unrealistic perceptions of Soviet behavior and misunderstanding about our SDI program must not lead to destabilizing unilateral concessions to an opportunistic adversary.
To promote more accurate discussion of the President's SDI program, it is useful to remember that the Soviets have long been involved in strategic defense and already have some capability in this area. Their reluctance to discuss their own deployed system, which they are now upgrading significantly, and their longstanding research into the same technologies that we are now investigating so openly, must raise questions among all thinking people about their motives and true intentions. The truth about SDI
1. SDI is a research program. It is in complete accord with the ABM Treaty.
2. The President's SDI program is directed against the whole spectrum of offensive nuclear ballistic missiles, not just long-range missiles aimed at the US. Indeed, if the research succeeds, it may free Europe from the specter of Soviet intermediate-range missiles.
3. Soviet propaganda to the contrary, the Soviets have continued their massive offensive weapons buildup and have even increased their SDI-type research. They are disturbingly ahead of the West in many strategic defense research and development areas, and increasingly capable of erecting an ABM system around the Soviet Union. Whatever one thinks of America's SDI program, everyone agrees that a Soviet monopoly in this field would severely degrade allied deterrent capabilities and prove extremely destabil izing.
4. The President's goal -- a world free from the nuclear threat -- is in the interest of all people. We have discussed our SDI research with the Soviets, and we are seeking also to discuss a stable transition to more secure deterrence, if defensive technologies bear fruit.
5. While our continuing efforts still have not succeeded to persuade the Soviets into agreement on mutual and verifiable reductions of offensive missiles, mutual pursuit of defensive deterrence may finally provide the Soviets with a reason to consider reductions. Success in our SDI-research program could further guarantee Western security and enhance the prospects for real reductions.
6. Allied countries participating in SDI research would accrue benefits to their industrial-technical bases. SDI research also will have significant civilian spinoffs, such as the medical application of free electron lasers now being investigated by three US medical centers, both in the US and overseas. Technologies developed through SDI research could be useful in European defense and have implications for conventional defenses.
7. SDI capability against intermediate nuclear forces would enhance conventional deterrence by increasing survivability of NATO's defenses in Europe -- thus reducing opportunities for the Warsaw Pact to see advantage in attacking.
8. SDI does not create a new arms race. It simply incorporates, economizes, and manages research efforts in potentially valuable related fields. SDI is a stability -- enhancing Western response to the larger and long-established Soviet efforts. Also, SDI could provide defensive security with resulting reduction in nuclear risk.
Meaningful arms reductions resulting from talks with the Soviet Union depend to a large extent upon the diligence and persistence of Western democracies. The President's SDI-research program is a challenge we cannot afford to abandon in the face of energetic Soviet propaganda and already significant Soviet investments in strategic defense. Nor can we abandon our SDI-related research for the mere promise of offensive weapons reductions by the Soviet Union. We must explore ways to move beyond our mutual s uicide pact. Misguided critics and those who ignore history's lessons must not be allowed to delude us. We must remember Edmund Burke's warning, ``The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.''
Caspar W. Weinberger is US secretary of defense.