'NUCLEAR Arms Talks Stall" used to be a common headline in US newspapers. Year after year, through the bad old days of the cold war, the story was repeated: Arms pacts were hung up because the superpowers were squabbling over nuclear detail.
Today "Arms Talks Go Zoom" might be more like it. The speed with which the United States and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have addressed deep new cuts in long-range nuclear arms has left Washington's security-studies community breathless.
The recently completed START pact on strategic weapons took nine years, beginning to end. After Secretary of State James Baker III's trip to the CIS last week, it looks as if some sort of follow-up START cuts could be finished by this summer.
"We're in the second golden age of arms control," says Michael Krepon, an arms analyst at the private Henry L. Stimson Center.
The first golden age was in the 1960s, says Mr. Krepon, when such pacts as the Limited Test Ban Treaty came on-line and ground was laid for the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and SALT I.
"We still have a very significant work program in front of us," adds Krepon.
The first step is continuing to implement informal arrangements on reductions, already agreed upon, of short-range tactical nuclear weapons, as well as proceeding with ratification and implementation of START.
The START pact will take both the US and Russia down to around 9,000 long-range warheads.
Then will come what, for want of a better title, could be called START II. One big reason for Mr. Baker's swing through Moscow last week was to discuss the competing proposals put forward by President Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin on further deep strategic nuclear reductions.
Mr. Yeltsin has proposed a flat cap of around 2,500 strategic warheads, with few details.
The US has put forward a more complicated proposal with a limit of some 4,700 warheads, a ban on multiple-warhead, land-based missiles (in which Russia is thought to have a technical edge) and reductions in submarine-carried missiles (an area of US advantage).
Secretary Baker and his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, didn't make any progress in bridging the difference between these proposals last week. But that wasn't the point of the visit, says one US arms control official.
"The main thing was to make sure they understood our proposal clearly," said Ron Lehman, head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, at a meeting with reporters.
Mr. Lehman said the Russians may not have known that US proposals for a one-third cut in sub missiles would be measured from levels reached after START is implemented, not before. The distinction is crucial, said Lehman, from a point of view of comparative military advantage.
"Our differences may not be as great as one might think," said Lehman.
The agreement probably wouldn't be a formal treaty. In Moscow Baker said he hoped new reductions could be codified through a simple exchange of documents or letters between presidents.
The two sides will begin foreign minister-level meetings March 10, in Brussels, to work on arms control details. They're aiming for some sort of agreement by the scheduled July summit meeting of Bush and Yeltsin.