The START II treaty has been slow off the blocks, thanks to complications in the former Soviet Union and politics in the United States Senate. But now that action appears imminent in the Senate, all parties should rally behind a treaty that promises to become the keystone for a worldwide system of controlling nuclear arms.
The pact was on hold until late 1994, awaiting the resolution of complex nuclear-weapons control issues among Russia, Ukraine, Kazakstan, and Belarus. Settling those issues allowed full implementation of START I, a prerequisite to START II.
The earlier treaty took nuclear arsenals down to the 8,000-to-9,000 warhead level, from a cold-war high of 12,000 and up. START II would drop the totals to 3,500 each for the US and Russia. While that's still enough to wreak unimaginable havoc, it builds momentum toward further reductions and comprehensive nonproliferation and test-ban agreements.
That logic seemed lost for awhile in the Senate. Most recently, for three months, Foreign Relations chairman Jesse Helms held START II hostage to his plans for restructuring the State Department. That impasse was finally cleared away, and START II should be high on the Senate's agenda in 1996.
The outlook is for overwhelming approval. After all, the treaty does away with the most destabilizing class of weapon - multiply targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVS), which are much more central to the Russian strategic arsenal than to the American one.
But, sadly, as the Senate appears ready to ratify START II, the Russian Duma, with a new crop of nationalist and Communist deputies, may be cooling on the treaty. That situation won't be helped by the continuing enthusiasm of conservative US lawmakers for an American anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) defense shield. The Russians see that as an attempt to nullify their nuclear deterrent. The ABM option, already iIlegal under an earlier treaty, should be shelved.
So START II could yet sputter. But with renewed American action and assurances to Moscow, it needn't. The goal is too important to dally any longer, regardless of immediate Russian response. Greatly reduced nuclear stockpiles will increase safety all around.
If the US and Russia fail to seize the opportunity afforded by START II, how will other nuclear-prone countries - India and Pakistan, for instance - react? Much of the consensus surrounding the recent extension of the treaty preventing the spread of nuclear arms rests on the assumption that the nuclear superpowers will lead the way with START.
A good example has to be set. START is a step that has to be taken.
This treaty is the keystone for a worldwide system of controlling nuclear arms.