Why ratifying the INF Treaty really matters

THE United States Senate should vote to ratify the INF Treaty - and it will. As in the committee hearings, debate on the floor focuses on the consequences of this treaty for national security. In the end, most members will agree with Sen. Sam Nunn's conclusion that the treaty makes a ``modest but useful contribution to NATO security.'' But while accurate in its own terms, such an assessment misses the larger significance of this act. Consider the implications of a Democratically controlled Senate ratifying an arms control treaty proposed, signed, and justified by Ronald Reagan. First, with Sen. Joseph Biden's resolution as a condition of Senate approval, such an action will resolve the constitutional issue of the role of the administration and Congress in interpreting treaties. Second, it will relegitimize arms control as an essential leg of a coherent national security policy. Third, it will begin to redefine the bipartisan center in national security policy.

The constitutional question is the easiest to state, but may prove the most difficult to settle. The issue arises because of an earlier effort by the Reagan administration to reinterpret the Antiballistic Missile Treaty unilaterally, claiming that the Senate's advice and consent to a treaty is ``irrespective of the explanations it [the Senate] is provided.'' The Biden resolution adopted by the Foreign Relations Committee will force the administration to affirm that a treaty means what the administration says it means when the President and his spokesmen present the accord to the Senate. Any reinterpretation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty will require collaboration with the Senate. As a nation of laws, we have a special stake in honoring solemn pledges, in avoiding Orwellian reinterpretations of legal commitments, and in adhering to our own constitutional practices in treatymaking. Though the administration resists the Biden resolution, its desire for speedy ratification will lead it to compromise on this matter if the Senate insists - as it should.

The political question of the role of arms control and US national security policy is more complex. When right-wing supporters like Jesse Helms, Richard Viguerie, and Howard Phillips attack Ronald Reagan publicly as soft on communism, and sponsor newspaper ads pairing him with Neville Chamberlain under a headline of ``appeasement,'' something is going on. As one wag put it, if those folks are that upset, something good must be about to happen.

To understand the extent to which US domestic political processes have distorted the role of arms control, it is useful to recall the SALT II ratification process. In the late 1970s, the SALT II Treaty signed by President Carter became the battleground in a war over how the US should deal with the Soviet Union. The right's basic philosophical and ideological opposition to dealing with the Soviets emerged as a set of tests that no arms control treaty could meet. The chasm separating the balance of domestic political power from the balance of US security interests became clear when the Reagan administration took office. Candidate Reagan campaigned against a treaty he declared ``fatally flawed.'' Once in office, however, President Reagan observed the restrictions of SALT II for six years, even after the treaty would have lapsed had it originally been ratified.

By signing the INF arms control treaty, the Reagan administration accepted an object lesson: Arms control can serve US interests. By ratifying Reagan's arms control treaty, a Democratically controlled Senate can help build a new consensus on the legitimacy of arms control - a consensus stretching from the Reagan administration to the far left. In justifying the treaty to the Senate and in ratifying it, both the administration and the Senate will reject the phony criteria that became dominant in the debate over SALT II.

Can ratification of the INF agreement contribute significantly to the reconstruction of a bipartisan center in US national security policy? Quite possibly yes - particularly if the process is well handled by Democrats as well as Republicans, and if the administration reaches a new agreement on strategic arms.

One piece of that consensus affirms arms control as an element of a coherent national security policy. A principal beneficiary of this relegitimation will likely be the next US president, since without it there would be little chance of his arms control efforts faring any better than those of Presidents Ford or Carter. More important, the INF Treaty will have helped shape the view that the US can deal with the USSR on a case-by-case basis to advance and defend our interests, not just in controlling arms, but also in resolving regional disputes, settling bilateral issues, furthering human rights, and finding other ways to reduce the risks of confrontation and war.

Graham Allison and Albert Carnesale are, respectively, the dean and academic dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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