Arms Reduction Still Crucial

OTHER issues have eclipsed East-West nuclear arms limitation efforts. Last week's talks between Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Houston were to prepare for final agreement on the groundbreaking strategic arms reduction treaty (START). Yet little about the arms deal came out of those talks. Instead, statements about Middle East tensions and food aid for Moscow claimed the most attention. A couple of years ago, arms limitation - long the staple of high-level East-West contact - would have dominated the news. The shift in emphasis reflects a changing world where the United States and Soviet Union find large areas of cooperation. The old nuclear ``balance of terror'' seems almost beside the point. In fact, it's still very much to the point - if the point is long-term peace and security. The task of reducing the destructive capability amassed over four decades remains critical.

As the preeminent nuclear powers, the US and Soviet Union share a responsibility to set an example. Both have signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. A show of good faith by following through on treaty obligations to slow the arms race by reducing their own stocks of warheads could help deflate the desires of others to join the nuclear ``club.''

Moscow and Washington have talked about preventing nuclear escalation in volatile regions like the Middle East. Completion of the START treaty at the February summit will bolster those words.

While the cutbacks under START - about a 35 percent reduction in planned deployments - are significant, they won't have much immediate economic effect. Modernization of forces is allowed under the treaty, so money will continue to flow. But START will mark a turnaround after years of increasing deployment, and it should lead to further reductions and more freeing up of resources. Within the Soviet Union, it also represents a restraint on the numbers of nuclear weapons on hand in a country undergoing sharp political turmoil.

As with past arms agreements, dissension is likely over issues like verification. But these sticking points should give way to the larger goal of lessening the nuclear threat.

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