THE Bush initiative on conventional arms and the subsequent display of Gorbymania in West Germany has taken the spotlight off the START negotiations which resumed last month in Geneva. While the issue of conventional arms control goes to the heart of the East-West military confrontation, rapid conclusion of a START treaty would do much to reduce political tensions further and stimulate agreement on conventional forces. The Bush administration inherited a START framework aimed at reducing strategic offensive arms by 30-50 percent. While it will take time to solve some of the outstanding issues and to work out the details on verification, a treaty should be ready for signature in the not-too-distant future.
The principal obstacle to this timetable is the vexing issue of strategic defenses. The administration has reportedly rejected proposed changes in the Reagan position on strategic defenses. That position is unlikely to be acceptable to the Soviet Union. Even if Moscow were to accept it, however, its formal adoption would not be in the US interest.
The Reagan administration's position was based on the acceptance of a 1986 Soviet proposal that both sides commit themselves not to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty for a specified period of time. This acceptance was, however, predicated on three conditions.
The United States insisted that each side retain the right to withdraw from the treaty upon six months' notice if its supreme national interests were jeopardized.
Once the nonwithdrawal period had come to an end, either side would be allowed to deploy strategic defenses for any reason after six months.
Both sides would be allowed to test the feasibility of strategic defenses during the nonwithdrawal period, implying the acceptance of what has come to be known as the ``broad'' interpretation of the ABM Treaty.
Although the Reagan administration argued this position, it undermines the ABM Treaty's essential tenets. The insistence that either side be free to deploy defenses means the treaty, which is currently of unlimited duration, would lapse at a pre-set time.
In addition, the proposal that all sides could test strategic defenses in accordance with the ``broad'' interpretation means that during the nonwithdrawal period both could take any action with regard to strategic defenses short of actual deployment.
In short the conditions would free both sides from all constraints detailed in the ABM Treaty, except for the prohibition to deploy strategic defenses beyond the 100-launcher limit. Even this prohibition could, however, be lifted upon six month's notice.
Adoption of the Reagan formula would nullify existing constraints on strategic defenses before technical feasibility has been proven, strategic objectives to be served by deployment have been agreed upon, and a political consensus on the issue has been formed.
Adoption of this position would also release existing restraints on Soviet strategic defense efforts and plans.
This result apparently worries the Joint Chiefs of Staff and led to their recent proposal to change the US negotiating position. The JCS believe the USSR might be in a better position to exploit the new freedom gained in the area of strategic defenses than is the US, a belief shared by former arms control adviser Paul Nitze.
Whether Moscow would embark on an extensive defensive deployment is uncertain. But the JCS and Mr. Nitze do have a point. It makes no sense to provide the USSR with the freedom to act in a way that the US will not for some time to come. Budgetary stringency is sure to curtail the SDI research program, further postponing any deployment date well into the next century.
The technical feasibility of anything more than a marginal defense system remains unproven. And the US Congress has clearly rejected both the prospect of deployment and the notion that the executive branch could or should unilaterally reinterpret international agreements, as acceptance of the ``broad'' interpretation clearly would.
Unless these economic, technical, and political obstacles can be resolved, it makes no sense to abandon the constraints inherent in the ABM Treaty.
A revision of the Reagan position in Geneva is clearly in order. It should continue to commit both sides to the terms of the ABM Treaty while restraining strategic defense development and testing in order to prevent a rapid breakout from treaty constraints.
Not only will a successful START agreement be more likely if strategic defenses continue to be restrained. It would also be the sensible thing to do.