The United States finds itself scrambling to keep up in the critical arms dialogue with the Soviet Union - and is not taking Soviet arms proposals seriously enough. So say many arms control advocates, who voice concern that, at a time when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is deftly lofting an array of bold proposals and initiatives, Washington is reacting in ad hoc fashion - often with confusion and conflicting voices. Needed, these experts say, is a thoughtful national debate in the US and the Western alliance that can lead to a comprehensive security policy embracing conventional as well as strategic nuclear weapons.
``We have switched the historic roles,'' says John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. ``The Soviets are framing the deal and we are reacting. It used to be the other way around.... We're not engaging these issues at the scale and scope we ought to be.''
In the opinion of Mr. Steinbruner and other experts, Mr. Gorbachev's arms policy reflects a historic change in Soviet military thinking over the past 15 years. The proposals for large-scale arms reductions enunciated at the Soviet party congress in 1986 are seen to be ``for real.'' They stem from a gradual Soviet acceptance of the proposition that national security can no longer rest on the military power of any country but must come through the ``common security'' of the US and the USSR.
``This doesn't mean the Soviet leaders ... are any less interested ... in serving the various interests of their state, but it does suggest they're now thinking in terms of less of a reliance on military power,'' says Brookings expert Raymond Garthoff, who was one of the negotiators of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.
Last June Gorbachev proposed sweeping cutbacks in conventional forces, with each side reducing up to 500,000 men by the early 1990s. Since then he has also made proposals on strategic nuclear missiles, medium-range missiles, strategic defense, and nuclear testing. Recently the Soviet leader offered to remove all short-range as well as medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
At the moment, debate is focused on the proposed agreement for the removal of intermediate nuclear forces (INF) from Europe. But this is only one piece, and the least important piece, of the military equation. The larger issues lie in the area of strategic or long-range nuclear weapons and in conventional forces, of which the Soviets have a preponderance.
``Gorbachev is really taking a new approach to the question of dealing with nuclear weapons,'' says Mark Garrison, director of Brown University's Center for Foreign Policy Development. ``He understands the tie between conventional and nuclear forces, and we could get progress on conventional forces and turn the strategic thing around so that we are headed toward a strategic arrangement where the danger of nuclear war will be dwindling toward zero.''
Michael MccGwire, a British specialist at Brookings and author of ``Military Objectives in Soviet Foreign Policy,'' says there have been significant changes in the past 15 years in Soviet military doctrine about the likely nature of war, and therefore in Soviet military requirements and attitudes on arms control.
The first change, he says, took place in the late '60s when planners decided it was no longer inevitable that a world war would involve massive nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union. ``This justified a reversal of policy in nuclear arms control, taking the dictum that less [nuclear arms] is better,'' says Mr. MccGwire. It led to a buildup of conventional forces and ultimately to Gorbachev's arms proposals.
The second change, MccGwire says, was a shift in the early '80s away from regarding a Soviet offensive westward as a central military requirement in the event of a war. This change flowed from Moscow's rising concern about an armed conflict with the US in the Middle East and a decision that such a conflict could be contained, thereby not requiring an offensive posture against NATO.
Thirdly, says MccGwire, the latest revolution in military technology means a quantum jump for Soviet military requirements and makes war increasingly difficult to fight - further reason for wanting to deescalate the arms race. Significantly, he says, the latest Soviet encyclopedic dictionary states in its section on military strategy that the primary task of the Soviet armed forces is to solve the problem of avoiding war - as contrasted with the traditional focus on winning a war if one breaks out. ``That's a very peculiar thing to put in under military strategy,'' comments MccGwire.
Garthoff also points to changes in Soviet political thinking as Kremlin leaders talk about global interdependence and the need to deal with international economic problems. ``The more they talk about global interdependence the more they undermine this conception of the world divided into two camps,'' says the arms expert. ``This does give them ideological problems, but ... it indicates the seriousness in which the present leadership is making an effort in this direction.''