THE spotlight on arms control, dimmed during the Gulf war, is once more shining in both the US-Soviet and Middle East arenas. The Soviet Union has apparently agreed to interpretations of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty signed last year that will make US Senate ratification more likely. US and Soviet negotiators wrestle with issues of weapons systems and verification that prevent completion of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The press reports that the White House is preparing a new initiative
to limit proliferation of weapons in the Middle East.
Success in any arms control initiative requires interrupting the intricate cycle of legitimate security concerns, economic interests, and political pressures that lie behind the escalation of military power.
The military establishments in any country have the professional responsibility to anticipate and prepare for conceivable threats against the nation's security. Although the perceived threat of Soviet military power has decreased with political chaos in that country, the US military cannot, in its planning, ignore the thousands of nuclear warheads and highly developed delivery systems in Moscow's arsenal. The Soviet military, without doubt, still thinks and operates in terms of a US threat. Their unhapp i
ness with the withdrawal of their forces from Eastern Europe and concern over the display of US technical prowess in the Gulf war cannot make them any more amenable to arms control. In the Middle East, the military establishments of Israel and the Arab states see direct threats to national security; their professional assessments probably leave little room for arms reductions.
In the US, the Soviet Union, and Israel, major industrial enterprises depend upon defense orders. Without challenging directly the need for arms control, such economic interests will, through both open and private lobbying, seek greater security-building programs.
For those countries without major arms industries - as in the Gulf - similar pressures are exerted by middle men who benefit financially from the imports. Their interests are matched by both the defense establishments and economic interests in arms-producing countries. Large orders for arms exports reduce per unit costs of weapons needed in a nation's own arsenal and keep industrial production going when internal arms orders lag.
Given this symbiotic network, the political leadership in each country must make the tough decisions. Such decisions must begin with a realistic assessment of the threat to a nation. Is that threat assessment to be based on what is known of a potential adversary's military capacity or on a best guess to adversary's intentions? Neither assessment is easy because estimates of both vary widely.
Leadership decisions on arms control must also be taken in the face of the pressures from two of the most powerful elements in the nation. Such decisions must at times challenge the assessments of the military on what systems may be essential for national security. Leaders will face the politically unpopular acts of closing defense industries and creating local unemployment. Both the defense establishment and industry have the capacity to mobilize strong opposing voices in the legislatures and the publi c
in any country.
Historically, no arms control agreement satisfies everyone. In today's world some argue that no agreement with the Soviet Union is needed because of that country's decline. However, more compellingly, such decline may mean it is more important and even more possible to work out an orderly reduction in conventional forces in Europe and reach accord on scaling back the nuclear arsenals of both powers.
In the Middle East, arguments against arms control agreements will be legion. Israelis will argue that they cannot risk being at a disadvantage in the face of Arab hostility; to them, their security requires a continuing escalation of technical superiority over both manufactured and imported arms in the Arab countries. Arab countries will argue the demonstrated threat to them of Israel's armies. Efforts to control weapons of mass destruction will founder on Arab resistance to any accords that do not eli m
inate Israel's nuclear capacity and suspected research in chemical and biological weapons.
Whatever the difficulties, however, the time and, possibly, the opportunities appear to have come to make meaningful advances in arms control in two critical regions of the world. Neither military professionals nor captains of industry will take the lead. Only presidents, kings, and prime ministers can interrupt the network that seeks ever greater arsenals. All the world should hope that they will now show the courage to do so.