THE Reagan administration denies that its Iceland offer involved an agreement to abolish all long-range nuclear weapons. According to Secretary of State George Shultz, under the proposal made at Reykjavik both sides would keep bombers and cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. Is this intended to calm those who are worried that comlete nuclear disarmament would leave the United States facing superior Soviet conventional forces?
If so, this clarification will be disillusioning to those who thought the administration had made a remarkable move away from the moderate goal of arms reduction toward the revolutionary goal of arms abolition.
What if President Reagan had in fact proposed complete nuclear disarmament within a decade - coupled with strategic-defense insurance?
Even if Mr. Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had made an informal abolitionist agreement, there are three reasons that any hope for peace based on such an accord would prove illusory. First, it conflicts with current Soviet security requirements. Second, security-minded members of the US Congress would expose it as a threat to Western security needs - as Mr. Shultz soon found.
Third, even if both leaders could have persuaded their governments to accept the proposal, in this new world, war could become more likely, not less.
Soviet security requirements. The Soviet establishment will not, in the near future, allow Mr. Gorbachev or any other Soviet representative to bind the Soviet Union to an agreement that denuclearizes Soviet military forces. Soviet power and prestige are in no small measure a reflection of the country's enormous nuclear arsenal.
Perhaps this illuminates the hypothesis of Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle that Gorbachev desperately needed to kill the summit's chances for success when it became clear that Reagan had agreed to something the USSR was unwilling to do: dismantle all nuclear weapons. Even if Gorbachev had personally endorsed the proposal at Reykjavik, he would have ultimately failed back home.
Furthermore, nuclear arms function (from the Soviet perspective) as a deterrent not only to US imperialism but to China. The Soviets have good reason to doubt that their conventional forces alone can guarantee the security of their Asian borders.
Though the US administration has talked about sharing defensive technology or know-how with Western Europe and the Soviet Union, China has not been mentioned. Will the US allow its friend China to remain vulnerable to nuclear attack while it provides the Soviets with strategic-defense know-how? That would subject China to an intolerable threat - giving it cause to fear that the Soviet Union might engage in a first strike against it, using the concealed nuclear weapons that the Reagan administration fears the USSR will retain. Hence, we can expect China to ask that the US help it in the construction of a defensive network against Soviet nuclear aggression.
On the other hand, if China shares in the defensive technology, the Soviet Union would lose its counter to China's massive land forces. For this reason alone, the security interests of the USSR appear to require opposition to both the development of strategic defense and the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Western security needs. We, of course, have good reason to doubt that Western Europe would be secure against Soviet conventional forces without a NATO threat of nuclear retaliation. This is the second reason for calling into question the view that an Iceland abolitionist agreement would have promised real hope for peace. The superiority of Warsaw Pact conventional forces, according to congressional security watchdogs such as Sen. Sam Nunn, make nuclear abolition a threat to NATO. The assumption is that the possession of nuclear weapons prevents Soviet aggression. Since, according to those in the Nunn school, NATO countries in Western Europe have not provided adequate forces for conventional deterrence, a denuclearized NATO would be an invitation to a Warsaw Pact invasion. Shultz has said that conventional forces will be improved, but the record of NATO promises in this area is not good.
Is it likely that the other NATO countries with nuclear forces would really go along with a US abolitionist proposal? The seeds for a consensus on nuclear disarmament exist, of course, in Britain. But how secure will West Germans feel with their security dependent on the thin conventional threat of NATO? And how does France fit into the scheme? After all, France has already asserted its nuclear independence from NATO: Its prestige and sense of security are tied to a nuclear arsenal.
If France alone refused to abandon its nuclear deterrence force - the Iceland accord that almost was (in its abolitionist version) would fall apart. Even if the Soviet Union were open to a US proposal to abolish all nuclear weapons - including all Soviet and US intermediate nuclear weapons in Europe, is the USSR likely to dismantle its nuclear arsenal in the face of hundreds of intermediate nuclear warheads aimed at it from French soil?
Insecurity without nuclear weapons. Beyond all this, there is a third reason for doubting that Reykjavik was a lost opportunity. Even if an abolitionist agreement worked out in Iceland could somehow have found adequate support in US and Soviet establishments, would we then be on the way to a more stable USSR-US peace? The removal of nuclear weapons would not remove the dangerous tension between the two countries. In a denuclearized world a war between the US and the USSR might again become conceivable: Neither side would be deterred by the fear of nuclear annihilation.
Those who now mourn what might have been at Reykjavik, and who perceived Shultz's apparent backpeddling as eroding any chance to put the abolitionist position back on the table, should face up to the fact that there is no unambiguous road to Soviet-American peace and that any choice brings with it enormous risks. A world without nuclear weapons is not necessarily one in which either US or Soviet security is enhanced.
David B. Myers is professor of philosophy at Moorhead State University in Minnesota.