The Reagan Administration worries that Americans and the world at large expect too much from this week's meeting between U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko. And with good reason.
At best, the Geneva get-together of Shultz and Gromyko marks the beginning of a long and arduous negotiating process that may in the end fail to produce a safer and more stable nuclear balance.
This doesn't have to mean that all is lost. This is a good time to ponder the built-in obstacles to a treaty for meaningful cuts in nuclear arms, and to consider whether more might be accomplished outside the framework of SALT-type negotiations.
Interesting food for thought is provided by articles in the current Foreign Affairs journal by two members of the Administration: Kenneth L. Adelman, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and Paul H. Nitze, Shultz's right-hand man in the talks with Gromyko.
Both make the point that U.S.-Soviet negotiations on arms control or any other subject inevitably are affected by the difference in political cultures.
Our system rewards risk-taking, and thrives on innovation. The Soviet system rewards risk-avoidance, and finds virtue in control and predictability.
One result is that the Soviets find it difficult to come up with initiatives of their own, but easy to wait for the impatient Americans to come around. As Pravda put it just last week, concessions are "the business of the American side."
Nitze, a veteran of many negotiations with the Soviets, believes that--despite the traditional Soviet lack of interest in true global stability--a live-and-let-live form of peaceful coexistence should continue to be the American goal. And he considers it conceivable that setbacks at home and abroad may finally have put the Soviet leadership class in a receptive mood.
However, Nitze has little faith that live-and-let-live coexistence can be established by treaty, given the wildly different perceptions about the world and such fundamental issues as human rights. He puts more faith in an "action-reaction" process under which "constructive discussions," rather than formal negotiations, lead to action on one side concurrent with action on the other. If one step produced satisfactory results, another could follow.
Nitze avoided any detailed discussion of how his approach might be applied to arms control. But by accident or design Adelman picked up where he left off. The ACDA chief is not considered a heavyweight in Administration councils. Thus his approach cannot be regarded as Administration thinking--more the pity. But the confluence of his ideas and Nitze's is encouraging.
Adelman doesn't propose abandonment of the negotiation track. But he observes that the practical results of past missile negotiations have been disappointing.
"Those who most fervently championed SALT I and II for the accords' reputed ability to help stop the strategic arms race," Adelman observed, "are those who now most fervently decry the staggering growth in strategic weapons within the terms of those very treaties."
In formal negotiations, deciding what to include and exclude in an agreement is extremely difficult, partly because of the vastly different makeup of the nuclear forces on each side.
In order to agree at all, some types of nuclear weapons are limited, while development and deployment of others goes on unimpeded. The military on each side feels compelled to push for deployment of whatever is allowed. A decision not to proceed with a given weapon is vulnerable to the charge that a valuable bargaining chip is being given away for nothing.
Thus conservatives have been disillusioned by the failure to constrain the Soviet military buildup, while liberals complain that existing pacts actually legitimize a continuation of the arms race.
Adelman suggests that more might be accomplished if formal negotiation efforts were complemented by efforts to control arms through unilateral and parallel acts of restraint by the two sides.
The idea is not new. Winston Churchill, in a 1933 speech, contrasted the glaring deficiencies of formalized disarmament negotiations with the oft-hidden benefits of public or private interchanges that might include suggestions that "if you will not do this, we shall not have to do that . . . ."
In a limited way the approach is being used already. The Administration has announced that it won't undercut the provisions of the unratified SALT II agreement if the Soviets show equal restraint. A similar situation exists with the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty.
The controversial young official suggests that quiet talks, conducted perhaps in parallel with formal negotiations, might help produce acts of "reciprocal restraint" with regard to reducing offensive missile forces and managing the future emergence of defensive systems.