THE outcome of the Conference on Confidence and Security-Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe that ended its session in Stockholm last month demonstrated that the United States can achieve results in multilateral negotiations on difficult issues. There was little enthusiasm in Washington in 1978 when the proposal for such a conference was first put forward by France. The US feared, as it often does, that little could be accomplished in a conference of 35 nations that included not only neutral nations but also the members of the Warsaw Pact.
The fear reflected a persistent American view that the Soviets are likely to be successful, in such a conference, in splitting America's allies while winning the vote of the neutrals. The United States clings to the belief that arms control agreements, if they are possible at all, can best be worked out in bilateral negotiations with Moscow.
Primarily because of the human rights features of the Helsinki process, the US wanted the process to go on. The US government concluded that support for the Stockholm conference was important in achieving that wider objective.
After almost three years of negotiations, the conference achieved results. Progress was advanced by the strong support given the US by the Western and neutral members, by the consolidation of authority in the Soviet Union, and by the pressure of a deadline.
The results included the agreement of the Soviet Union to measures that would include all of Europe to the Urals and would cover all significant military activities on the Continent. Further, the participating states have agreed to announce maneuvers in some cases two years ahead.
The most important symbolic breakthrough was achieved on the issue of verification. The Soviet Union agreed, for the first time in arms control negotiations, to permit inspection of military activities from the air.
This agreement is far from perfect. The Soviets can insist on the use of their own aircraft in verifying maneuvers. Further, any satisfactory verification of the deployment and development of strategic weapons would require far more sophisticated measures.
As Ambassador Robert Barry, head of the US delegation, said in a recent speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, ``The Stockholm confidence-building regime will not prevent determined aggression or rule out the use of force for political intimidation. But it will greatly reduce the possibility of the `unwanted' or accidental war, and it will greatly raise the political cost for a state trying to intimidate another through military means.''
These are small steps and may appear as a sideline to the main task of controlling and limiting nuclear weapons. There are those involved in the process, however, who believe that such talks may be as important as those on major weapons. In a nuclear age, they point out, conflict may be as likely to arise out of a misreading of the military actions of a potential adversary as from calculated assault.
The negotiations were not easy and continued at least a year longer than the Western nations had planned. As usual, the USSR demonstrated throughout the deep aversion, particularly of the Soviet military, to disclosure of details on the organization and deployment of Soviet forces.
There is every indication that, while there may have been differences of view among the Western nations, they held firmly to their original objectives of increasing the common understanding about the purpose and scope of all significant military activities taking place in Europe. They supported the US in its opposition to any inclusion of naval maneuvers or of any military activities in the Western Hemisphere.
Many obstacles to applying these accords lie ahead. The US will insist that the Soviet Union demonstrate its faithfulness to the Stockholm agreements and to the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act as well. Washington will also look for the continued support of its European allies on both issues in the Helsinki Review Conference opening in Vienna in November.
Nevertheless, the Stockholm achievements move forward the arms control discussions in some significant areas. The conference should help build confidence, not only in measures to preserve the peace, but in the ability of the US to gain the support of its allies and to pursue successfully its foreign policy objectives in a multilateral forum.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.