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Chernobyl Shouldn't Poison Atmosphere for Arms Talks

May 08, 1986|JOHN TIRMAN | John Tirman is executive director of the Winston Foundation for World Peace in Boston.

The political uses of Chernobyl are now in full swing. The accident has, not surprisingly, been exploited quickly by anti-nuclear activists in Europe and the United States. Nothing could be more persuasive than the specter of many deaths and a radioactively poisoned ecosystem, which serves to drive another nail in the coffin of the U.S. nuclear power industry. The more strained political "lesson," though, is the supposition that the Soviets' misfortune tells us something about the prospects for disarmament. That is disingenuous.

An unidentified White House aide, quoted in a news report from the Tokyo summit, made the point by insisting "how dangerous it is to trust (the Soviets') good will on other questions like arms control."

One is tempted to retort that it's in the nature of any government bureaucracy to delay, distort and otherwise try to twist the truth to satisfy its own interests. The reactor accidents at Browns Ferry in 1975 and Three Mile Island in 1979 verify this tendency, as do many other episodes. But this does not excuse the Soviet government's foolish disregard for its European neighbors. Mikhail S. Gorbachev will pay a high price for this unwarranted furtiveness.

As to arms control, however, trust is not the issue. The United States does not enter into arms agreements on the basis of "good will." Treaties are negotiated and signed only when the interests of national security are served and the provisions of the accord can be verified.

In fact, trust and good will aren't really the basis of our daily commerce with other Americans. Consider, for example, a simple transaction such as purchasing a house. The bank does not lend money on the presumption of "good will." A contract must be signed, which has provisions for non-compliance and several ways to ensure that the obligations under the agreement are being fulfilled. Nor must the buyer trust the bank. A relationship is being formed that has mutual benefits, with fail-safe mechanisms to make sure that if one party fails, the other is protected. A contract has, in reality, little to do with trustworthiness.

So why would anyone consider "good will" essential to high-stakes international bargaining? It is not. And, as deplorable as the handling of Chernobyl was, it should have no bearing on superpower strategic relations. We have known for many years that the Soviet bureaucracy is secretive, nearly paranoid, and must be approached in negotiations with the utmost care and watchfulness.

When accords are reached, as in SALT II and the ABM Treaty, we must constantly question the actual Soviet compliance. Despite the Reagan Administration's effort to prove otherwise, the Soviet Union's fulfillment of its obligations to past treaties has been quite good (as has that of the United States). There are troubling gray areas, to be sure, but no militarily significant violation of an arms-control agreement has occurred on either side.

The reason for this generally admirable performance is that arms-limitation treaties have been purposefully designed to rely not on trust, but on mutual interests and verifiability. The Soviet Union and the United States have benefitted mightily from arms limitation; a frenetic, unrestrained competition in weapons technology is not in the interests of either side. Negotiated arms control, with firm rules of compliance, is the best way to constrain such a ruinous rivalry.

Indeed, our satellites, radar, seismographs and other means of reconnaissance ensure that we have reliable information on Soviet activities. Thus, a sudden and significantly threatening "breakout" from a treaty is not in the cards.

That is how arms control should always be shaped, conforming to principles and provisions that are broad enough to grant greater security to both nations, while modest enough to be easily monitored.

The enemies of arms control in the United States surely know this fundamental tenet of diplomacy. So it is saddening to see them seize upon this human disaster in the Ukraine as "proof" that the Soviets cannot be trusted in negotiations. We need only trust ourselves--our ability and capacity to restrain the arms race--to move forward toward a safer world.

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