A basic question-and-answer primer on the superpower agreement in principle to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear (INF) missiles might look something like this: How important is this agreement?
Why? Because for the first time it will destroy an entire class of nuclear weapons?
No. That's the hype. Since the INF constitutes only 3 percent of nuclear arsenals, and since the thousands of nuclear weapons of longer ranges still will cover the same targets several times over, disappearance of this particular segment means little in itself.
Then why is it significant?
For three reasons:
First, this is the first nuclear arms control agreement in eight years, and the first by an American administration that came into office hostile to arms control.
Second, the INF agreement could be the lubricant to much more fundamental arms control in the strategic category at the forthcoming summit.
Third, if so, this could open prospects of a much less hostile East-West relationship all around as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev turns Soviet energies away from foreign adventures and toward the needed overhaul of his domestic economy and society.
Why are Gorbachev's generals, who fight scrapping even useless obsolete weapons, now willing to accept a deal where they will destroy five times as many warheads as the US, including some of their shiniest new SS-20s?
Mr. Gorbachev is gambling. He and his reform economists say - and they seem to have persuaded part of their military hierarchy of this - the Soviet economy is so decrepit it can be rescued only by a major overhaul. This requires a ``breathing space'' abroad (a good Leninist concept) to gather strength at home.
Throughout the 1980s the Europeans have badgered President Reagan to get moving on arms control. So, are they now overjoyed?
All the official reactions have been enthusiastic. But there also is concern that withdrawal of America's most powerful nuclear forces from Europe might presage eventual withdrawal of American troops from Europe. The Europeans fear a weakening of ``extended deterrence.''
Nuclear ``deterrence'' at superpower level means each side's weapons are so awful that they ``deter'' or dissuade the other from starting any kind of superpower war, out of fear of unacceptable retaliation. ``Extended deterrence'' means the US ``extends'' this dissuasion to protect its NATO allies as well. Because of extended deterrence, the West argues, the Soviets never have been tempted to use their superior conventional forces to attack Western Europe.
So the fear is that if things got serious, once the INF missiles are gone, the US might cut and run?
Yes, that's the fear responsible NATO, European, and American officials all are working to allay. Hours before announcement of the Soviet-American ``agreement in principle,'' NATO Secretary-General Peter Carrington told the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London that an INF agreement would ``change the landscape of European security'' and make possible the ``temporary vulnerability'' of Western Europe.
But he quickly went on to say the real guarantee of American defense of Europe is not military hardware but the ``flesh and blood'' of the 326,000 American troops stationed here.
The West Germans were the most jittery of any Europeans about an INF agreement last spring. Are they calmer now?
Yes. Two weeks ago Chancellor Helmut Kohl offered not to modernize Bonn's elderly Pershing 1A missiles. He therefore got credit for this contribution to arms control instead of being left as the odd man out while everyone else agreed to elimate INF weapons.
Also curiously enough, the fuss the Soviets made about the Pershing 1A's in the past month has enhanced alliance solidarity. It let the Americans ostentatiously stand up against Moscow on behalf of the West Germans in refusing to write the renunciation of Pershing 1A modernization into the formal INF treaty. This has helped reassure West Germans that the Americans aren't abandoning them after all.
Where do the superpower talks on nuclear testing (that were also agreed on) fit in?
Most Western strategic thinkers (and certainly the Reagan administration) regard these as a sideshow.