The Soviet Union has some thinking-through to do of its own.
It is too early to know whether Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000 is a public relations stroke or a serious bid to begin, as he put it, ridding "the Earth of nuclear weapons."
The place to begin finding out is Geneva, where U.S. and Soviet arms-control negotiators meet today for the first time since the November summit meeting. Unfortunately, the Soviet position against "Star Wars" research is as rigid as President Reagan's position in its favor--a barrier to bargaining that remains even after Reagan's positive response to the Gorbachev proposals.
Gorbachev's proposal Wednesday came in three parts: Over the next five to eight years the Soviet Union and the United States would reduce by half the nuclear arms that can reach each other's territory, with each side retaining no more than 6,000 warheads aboard strategic delivery vehicles. Beginning in 1990 the other nuclear powers--Great Britain, France and China--would be brought into the process. In 1995 all five powers would start eliminating all nuclear weapons.
He also called for a ban on chemical weapons, and said that Moscow wants agreements to reduce conventional, non-nuclear weapons.
If world statesmen could always be taken at their word, this would be an immensely encouraging development. Reagan, too, has expressed his interest in relieving the world of the threat of nuclear extinction. But people who are skeptical that the President's policies are in concert with his avowed aims are likely to be just as skeptical of Gorbachev's grand plan.
Reagan has called for a 50% reduction in strategic nuclear weapons, similar to Phase One of the Gorbachev proposal, but there are fundamental differences over where the cuts should be made.
Arnold Horelick, director of the Rand-UCLA Center for Study of Soviet Behavior, fears that Gorbachev is "basically taking the earlier Soviet proposal and wrapping it with pie in the sky" to add to domestic and European pressures on Reagan to see things the Soviet way.
Despite their skepticism, U.S. experts on the Soviet Union still think that Moscow really does want and need a period of mutual restraint in the arms race because of its serious economic difficulties. The question is whether the Soviets are willing to address this country's genuine security concerns instead of merely maneuvering for advantage.
That is essentially what the Geneva negotiations are about. Common sense calls for a U.S.-Soviet agreement setting a boundary between allowable research on strategic defense and prohibited development. The United States is entitled to insist that cutbacks on especially threatening portions of the Soviet nuclear forces be part of the trade-off.
So far the Soviets have officially insisted on total U.S. renunciation of the Star Wars program, including research. It is time for the Kremlin, too, to think that through for the sake of getting arms-control talks off dead center.