With the tentative breakthrough in the round of arms control talks that ended in Geneva Thursday, all eyes are looking to the Soviet-American summit as the last chance for major arms control. It's clearly the last chance for Ronald Reagan before the 1988 presidential election swamps him in the lame-duck phenomenon, analysts say. And it's possibly the last chance in this century -- if the popular Reagan can't pull it off now -- before an all-out arms race in both offensive and defensive weapons builds an overpowering momentum, they say. [Arms control expert sees progress, but no pact by year's end. Story, Page 7.]
The fact that it's not even certain that the superpower summit will take place before the end of this year as planned suggests the tenuous nature of the current prospects for arms control. And this is only one element of suspense in what has become a roller-coaster process.
For arms control advocates the roller-coaster decade of the 1980s began at a very low point. The new Reagan administration seemed more keen on crippling its ideological enemy in Moscow than on negotiating mutual survival with it. And the Kremlin was in an interregnum of elderly, ill leaders who were unable and unwilling to wring out of the Politburo the tough concessions necessary for arms control.
Recriminations were therefore the order of the day. In this atmosphere Reagan's bolt-out-of-the-blue launching of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or ``star wars'') in March 1983 and the collapse of the first set of superpower negotiations about Euromissiles and strategic missiles in November 1983 seemed to kill arms control altogether.
All of 1984 passed with no resumption of superpower dialogue. And the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev to the top in Moscow in March 1985 seemed to presage a power struggle of several years before the untested new leader would be strong enough to experiment in this sensitive area of policy.
Surprisingly, however, the roller coaster re-ascended in 1985. Mr. Gorbachev began consolidating power with unprecedented speed. Moscow discovered that Reagan, for all his impromptu joking about bombing the Russians out of existence, actually acted cautiously when push came to shove.
More broadly, the two sides grudgingly acknowledged strong incentives for arms control. The Soviet Union realized that it needed breathing space abroad to revitalize its staggering economy -- and that an all-out arms race with an American economy twice as large as the Soviet one could only hinder such rejuvenation. American arms controllers argued that while SDI could give the US a temporary military advantage over the Soviet Union, that lead would be enormously expensive, would last only a few years, and would dangerously increase the risk of panicky shooting in any crisis.
In the new set of arms control talks that opened in 1985, then, the US dusted off an earlier proposal to make deep cuts in nuclear offensive weapons for the first time in the nuclear era. (Previous arms limitations have not reduced, but only capped existing numbers.) In the run-up to the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit last November the Kremlin responded with its own offer of 50 percent cuts. Even if the definition of what would be cut was unrealistic, the two sides were within negotiating distance of each other.
But then the roller coaster dipped again, and a period followed that puzzled both sides.
Washington moderates desperately needed some signs of Soviet flexibility to conduct their trench warfare with hawks within the Reagan administration. Yet Gorbachev gave them nothing to work with. In the key issue -- linkage between deep cuts in offensive weapons and verifiable restraints on star-wars strategic defense -- Soviet negotiators didn't budge from their unrealistic demand that all SDI research be barred. Instead, they focused on throwing out splashy new proposals in a secondary area -- intermediate-range missiles.
In particular, Gorbachev never began the obvious trade-off of SDI and deep cuts at the summit -- and this stranded administration moderates. In intramural fighting before the summit they had won approval for a cautious probe in this direction, in terms of reaffirming the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.
But when Gorbachev offered nothing, and nothing in this direction was written into the communiqu'e, the resurgent administration hawks again seized the initiative. The result was Washington's May 27 announcement that the unratified SALT II agreement of 1979 was no longer valid. The series of contradictory statements out of Washington since then on SALT II have been part of the battle in an administration in which controversial policy is less hammered out in committee than argued out in public proclamation.
This inconsistency in turn baffles Moscow, various Soviet spokesmen complain.
Whatever the reasons for the delay, the Soviets did finally make the probe in the negotiations that observers were waiting for on May 29 -- and they did not postpone it despite the US announcement of the end of SALT II two days earlier. In Geneva the Soviets offered to proceed with deep cuts if the US would keep SDI research within the bounds of the ABM Treaty for a minimum of 15 years.
In a further offer June 11 and in elaborations in the just-concluded fifth round of talks, Moscow also went back to a classical definition of weapons to be counted as strategic: intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers. With this they retracted their demand (as they did when negotiating got serious in SALT I and II) that US planes and missiles based in Europe for European defense but capable of reaching the Soviet Union be counted in the strategic totals.
In the Soviet offer there are certainly elements that are unacceptable to the US. But Moscow has now moved far enough for President Reagan to speak in his Glassboro, N.J., speech about a potential ``turning point'' in the talks and, in a Los Angeles Times interview, to pull back from the position that SALT II is dead.
In his closing statement in Geneva Thursday, chief US negotiator Max Kampelman picked up Reagan's phrase about a possible ``turning point in the effort to make ours a safer and more peaceful world.''
By contrast, the Soviet public comments on Thursday were surprisingly negative. A statement in the name of the ``USSR delegation,'' rather than chief negotiator Viktor Karpov, specifically said that Mr. Kampelman's ``assessments do not reflect the actual state of negotiations and present it in a distorted light.'' It charged the US with continuing to ``block progress at the negotiations.''
The roller coaster now lurches toward the next superpower summit.