NUCLEAR weapons are vastly more threatening than ideological differences as a source of anxiety for Soviet and American perceptions of each other. There is no clear evidence that ideology has been responsible for the early impulse toward nuclear arsenals on the two sides: American development of the atomic bomb came in World War II against the Germans and Japanese, and, quite clearly, Soviet development of the same weapon was inspired by the simple fact that the Americans already had it and were using this exclusive possession to further their own interests, whether or not they pertained to East-West issues. What the existence of ideological struggle has done is to make a clash of national interests armed with nuclear weapons more emotional and, hence, more likely to lead to actual war than would be the case without such ideologies. To subtract these ideologies from the picture, however, would not reduce the levels of nuclear arsenals if the arsenals themselves were still a source of national anxiety independent of historic political differences.
The politics of nuclear disarmament, therefore, must reverse the usual view - the view that political differences account for the size and quality of current nuclear arsenals - and shift to the much more difficult idea that the sheer presence of these weapons in their present configurations has become an independent factor in the ``threat assessment,'' as analysts delicately call superpower anxiety, of each side's perception of the other's intentions. Indeed, it is commonplace to argue that sheer military ``capabilities'' signal national intent in a way political pronouncements can never do, and these capabilities must be provisionally read in the ``worst case'' on both sides because of the sheer enormity of the nuclear threat. Politically speaking, disarmament must begin by reducing nuclear arsenals without special signs of ``good intent.''
Why, then, is there such resistance to nuclear disarmament?
The reasons for skepticism in the US about disarmament are fairly obvious. The political consequences of nuclear disarmament will challenge doctrines of ``power projection'' at the base of America's international security strategy since the end of World War II by undermining ideas of ``superpower'' status and ``bipolar'' balance of global power expounded more often by American than Soviet strategists in the postwar period.
Separated by vast oceans from the nations it subdued in World War II, the US, more than the Soviet Union, was forced to formalize air-power and sea-power strategies to maintain its military influence in Europe and Asia vis-`a-vis its wartime ally, the Soviet Union, with which it grew to have profound differences about postwar security.
American foreign policy in the postwar period was given a scope and reach that would have been denied it without sophisticated means of delivering nuclear arsenals on far-flung targets in the Soviet Union. Nuclear weapons, first in the American, not Soviet, arsenal represented an important step forward in America's postwar airpower strategy, a strategy that would be extended to naval as well as land-based air, and then to missiles on land and at sea, but in all cases with central strategic systems operated by the Air Force and Navy. Only during the brief respite of the Carter administration was any serious attention paid in American policy to a ``continental strategy'' necessary for serious reduction in nuclear arsenals, a strategy where the US would become more reliant on the military capabilities of its own and others within various theaters of action with less reliance on its traditional air- and seapower approaches to projecting nuclear power.
The chief consequence of nuclear disarmament will be some perceived loss in superpower status, perhaps more on the part of the US than Soviet Union when it comes to the close connection between political standing in global affairs and military capabilities. Such loss of status can lead to anxieties about one's ability not only to project power overseas, but to deter the other side from using what military power remains at its disposal after disarmament is under way. Since the Soviet Union controls the world's most comprehensive conventional forces, some would see nuclear disarmament - traditionally pushed more fervently by Soviet leaders than Americans until the Reagan administration - as more threatening to United States than Soviet interests in world affairs.
It should be noted, however, that perhaps Moscow's claim to parity with the US in world affairs is more, not less, dependent on its nuclear arsenal, or so a number of American analysts argue. Some opponents of nuclear disarmament in this country nonetheless insist that the only Soviet claim to equality is military, especially nuclear, parity. Were it not for the presence of nuclear weapons in the Soviet-American equation, they argue, there would be ``no contest'' at all, the US being superior in every other index of international accomplishment.
An important consequence of disarmament in a world where status has previously been contingent on membership in an exlusive club of nuclear giants may be the lowered self-esteem of both superpowers.
Possible security anxieties, along with the economic impact of disarmament, deserve careful analysis in the event of another Reagan-Gorbachev summit where accords may be reached on major cuts in nuclear arsenals. We must begin this research in political psychology and military affairs now.
Robert J. Pranger is a distinguished fellow at the University of Maryland Center for International Development and Conflict Management, College Park.