Backstage at Geneva: protocol, commas, and even barbecues

This morning a group of Americans and Soviets likely will replay a familiar scene as another round of superpower arms talks begins. More than a dozen American arms experts will climb into their black Mercedes Benzes at the glass high-rise United States mission and drive quietly down the half-mile Avenue de la Paix (Peace Road) to the Soviet mission, a cluster of low-lying modern white buildings in a lush park above Lake Geneva. Under a canopied entrance, the Americans will shake hands with their Soviet hosts in a receiving line, and then some 25 to 50 people will disappear behind a somber conference room door.

This will mark the formal opening of the eighth round of Nuclear and Space Arms Talks (NST).

In keeping with tradition, the Soviets will sit on the left and the Americans on the right in the ornately elegant high-ceilinged conference hall of the Soviet mission. Bottles of Swiss mineral water will line the table. Since the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I), which ended in 1972, alcohol has not been served.

Equality in all respects is a critical element of the talks. The next time the negotiating teams meet, it will be in the coolly modern US mission, where the ``home'' team will have its back to the door while the guests sit facing it.

For all the seeming formality, the members of the teams who meet again today know each other well, as do the bargaining groups for the multitude of other arms talks that take place in Geneva.

Each round has three subsets of talks: Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), and ``defense and space.''

The arms talks are a painstakingly slow and rarely dramatic business transacted between groups who meet several times a week. In addition to plenary (full) sessions, where protocol calls for formality, there are more informal and often smaller working groups where details are hammered out.

Nuances, says one diplomat, are very important. He recalls a nuclear physics expert telling the press recently that his group was having ``discussions'' - they were not engaging in ``talks'' or ``negotiations.''

Chris Henze, a spokesman for the US mission, says that a snail's pace is unavoidable in arms talks. In one round, he says, ``with the best will on both sides - and I want to emphasize the best will - we had a half-hour discussion over the placement of a comma in the English version of the text.'' He points to the INF talks, the latest round of which began in Geneva April 23, and says, ``Our current draft treaty has a lot of commas.''

The commas, not to mention the words, that get worked and reworked in Geneva would probably fill the nearby lake. Geneva is home to virtually all the Soviet-American arms talks, plus the multilateral Disarmament Conference, which has 40 member nations.

Until the beginning of this year, the three NST teams met simultaneously. Now, the rounds have been ``uncoupled'' and the INF talks began nearly two weeks earlier. For each of the three groups, the two sides have special separate negotiating teams and experts. There is also a Soviet-American body that deals exclusively with putting the arms agreements into effect. The NST talks began in March 1985. The groups tend to meet for six weeks in Geneva, go to their home bases for an equal amount of time, and then return with new instructions.

The players in the game, after months or years of negotiations, are well acquainted. A recent change in some of the Soviet personnel is not seen by the Americans as throwing an unknown card into negotiations - these people have been involved in other arms meetings.

``People sometimes think that if only both sides would sit down and get to know each other better, just talk, we could solve everything,'' says one official. ``It doesn't work that way.''

In fact, the two sides do get together and talk: in addition to conference-room meetings, they have had barbecues, boat outings on Lake Geneva, dinners, and lunches.

The Soviets and Americans may describe themselves as adversaries, but the people who sit on the front line, where the two sides touch, describe their working relationships as cordial.

Nevertheless, their respective governments give them strict negotiating instructions and as one official puts it, ``there is some flexibility, but it can never be two pals sitting down and deciding things.'' That division is most obvious at plenary sessions.

For the NST, these are called whenever one side wishes. The Soviet side called for one last week to announce its INF draft treaty. The START negotiations this week may begin this way - or the ambassadors may decide, as they did at the beginning of the last round, to have a quiet lunch together in more relaxed surroundings and reserve plenary sessions for major announcements. The process seems to plod along, but Geneva can boast several multinational accords: the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1971 Seabed Arms Control Treaty, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, and the 1977 Environmental Modification Treaty.

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