In 1987 the priority for United States negotiators at the arms-control talks in Geneva should be to push for a separate agreement on reducing intermediate- range forces (INF) in Europe. At Reykjavik, Iceland, the US and the Soviet Union came close on INF, but agreement fell apart because it was tied to the bigger package. The problems that doomed the summit, especially differences on space-based weapons, remain. But so do the INF opportunities.
This administration should try to move forward on arms where possible. This requires forgoing the ambitious comprehensive agreement and going for what is doable in the next two years. It still has the time to hammer out an INF agreement that would be a lasting diplomatic achievement.
Part of the effort to achieve an agreement must include better coordination with the European allies. Many Europeans were surprised by the Reagan-Gorbachev ``zero option'' proposal at Reykjavik to eliminate all INF warheads in Europe and allow only 100 elsewhere; they had not been consulted beforehand. European governments that took considerable risks to install INF missiles on their soil have begun to see political and strategic dangers in the missiles' removal. The allies have expressed old worries about a delinkage of the US from Europe's security and a conventional military balance favoring the Warsaw Pact, and new worries about Soviet short-range missiles in Europe.
Given the public demonstrations throughout Western Europe against INF deployments in 1982-83, what will European public opinion accept in an INF agreement? Observers as diverse as the NATO secretary-general, Lord Carrington, and the West German Social Democratic Party believe that what the European public wants most is an arms control agreement, period. It is not preoccupied with the details. Similarly, there is no enduring political or emotional commitment in Europe to the ``zero option.'' Thus, the administration still has considerable negotiating flexibility. A good backup formula to work with might be the concept of the 1983 ``walk-in-the-woods'' proposal, to leave some INF missiles on European soil and retain the symbolic link of US missiles to European security.
The second part of an INF negotiation is at the table with the Soviets, and the US should avoid making its INF proposal too complicated. At Reykjavik the US would have had the Soviets either agree to freeze the number of short-range systems between 500 and 1,000 kilometers (300 to 600 miles) to that existing on Jan. 1, 1982, before SS-23s were moved into Eastern Europe, or freeze the numbers at the level of Dec. 31, 1985. The US also wanted the right to increase its short-range missiles to a level equal to the Soviets'; this the Soviets rejected. But the West Germans want even more short-range missiles included and a specific commitment on when to negotiate.
Germany's concerns are valid, but at this time they could needlessly complicate negotiations, because they are new issues raised late in the game. A more flexible approach would be to press for the terms of the freeze discussed at Reykjavik and delay until a mutually agreed time the questions of including other short-range systems, raising US levels, or planning a time for negotiations. Returning to the ``walk-in-the-woods'' proposal could also help get at some of Bonn's strategic concerns.
The US should seize the initiative and get a new INF proposal onto the negotiating table. This is both good policy and good politics: Official US polls show that in Britain and West Germany, the public believes Mr. Gorbachev has done more for arms control than President Reagan has. These opinions are alarming, and proof of how important it is for the President to restore confidence in the US ability to make arms control progress.
Would the Soviets respond to a new US proposal? They may conclude that it is not worth the effort, that it is better to wait for the next administration. That would be a mistake. But the Soviets are not at this point yet. Their interest in arms control continues, despite Reagan's decision last November on breaking out of SALT II limits. The Soviets must now break the link they created between the SDI and arms control talks. That link remains the chief obstacle to an INF agreement.
If President Reagan can reach an INF settlement, he will achieve his first major arms-control agreement, leave a positive legacy to his successor, and take an important step toward restoring confidence in US leadership. Certainly between now and 1988 there remains an opportunity to find an INF settlement that meets US and European public concerns and security needs.
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana is chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.