Looking at the clock

IN 12 months the American presidential primaries and caucuses will be in full swing; in 21 months the United States will have a new president-elect. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, will in all likelihood have the same leader, gaining in experience and effectiveness. This leadership clock bears implications for arms control:

While the prospects of reaching an accord during the Reagan presidency should not be foreclosed, the outlook has greatly narrowed. To get something approved by the current Congress, the proposal would have to be ready by August. The next Congress will presumably be too caught up in the coming election.

The Soviets are still interested in pursuing an agreement. The Strategic Defense Initiative is still the sticking point, with confusion continuing within the Reagan administration over what the ABM Treaty permits. Mikhail Gorbachev's aggressive pursuit of an accord will serve his ties with a future administration, whatever the results with President Reagan's.

Expectations are low. Though in no sense binding, the likelihood that any agreement will surface is described as 25 percent at most, and then at best it would be one on something like intermediate-range missiles in Europe - the newest additions to the superpower arsenals, and the question most easily explored.

The Washington impression is of a President and administration less up to the job now, with a chief of staff and secretary of state of uncertain tenure.

Given these circumstances, the White House should pursue a two-track course. It should keep working at the arms control process, both internally and in Geneva. But it should anticipate the growing likelihood that it will fall to another administration to realize new accords on arms; hence, it should look to non-arms areas for improving the climate of relations between Moscow and Washington.

The administration can help build a foundation for future accords by encouraging and cautiously affirming Gorbachev's modest steps toward political and cultural change in the Soviet Union. The recent greater openness in discussing Soviet failings, the freeing of certain dissidents, and so on suggest potentially significant changes in Soviet and East-bloc behavior. The State Department has rightly begun to comment positively on these changes.

Easing US restrictions on exports, fostering further intellectual and cultural exchanges, can also help move the superpowers into a period of greater assurance, in which the emotional barriers to agreement are more easily overcome.

Working toward consensus in Congress, among allies, and in the scientific and arms control communities is also crucial to eventual success in arms control.

The stance of Secretary of State George Shultz on SDI - that it will be a couple of years at least before the US is able to make an intelligent decision about defensive systems development - is helpful. Some scientists see such a decision as five or six years off, well into the next administration's tenure. Defensive technologies that could be developed more quickly are likely to be the less effective.

The Reykjavik discussions of radical elimination of nuclear forces were off at such a wide angle to what people had been studying over the past two decades that there is no confidence in whether they would lead to greater stability for the Western alliance. It appeared possible a year or so ago to have made significant cuts in strategic arms, of up to 50 percent, but even that had not been studied closely enough in the government. Even so, the study groups set up in Geneva to explore the Reykjavik proposals can be used to advance eventual arms control prospects.

Optimistic as it may seem, it is still possible for the challenge of arms control to help the Reagan administration reach for the internal discipline and coherence it needs. It can spur the White House to end the confrontationalism that has gotten it into so much trouble, and to seek the political and intellectual consensus that ensure a lasting arms control legacy.

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