When every other argument is exhausted, diehard opponents of arms control take refuge in the slough of verification. Whatever the other merits of a treaty, they will fault it because of our inability to know perfectly what the Soviet Union is up to. Our military leaders say that it's enough to know what we must know in time to respond, but arms control's opponents demand perfection. And if one minor instance of cheating shows up, so much the better to compromise the entire treaty.
In explaining his reluctance to continue adhering to the 1979 strategic arms limitation treaty, President Reagan has adopted this theme. The Soviets, he says flatly, have violated SALT II and, to boot, have not complied with a key provision of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty.
The dispute about the facts centers on three charges:
- SALT II permits each side to deploy one "new type" of intercontinental ballistic missile, but the Soviets are deploying two. They claim that the second, the so-called SS-25, is merely a permitted modification of an older missile. The Reagan Administration says that the SS-25 is too large for that to be true.
- In order to permit each side to determine whether the other is abiding by the treaty, it prohibits encoding of data radioed by test missiles where this "impedes verification of compliance with provisions of the treaty." No doubt the Soviets encode many signals, but argument rages about the treaty's standard--a marvel of ambiguity.
- The Soviets are building a phased-array radar near Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, that almost certainly violates the ABM treaty. It requires that such radar be deployed only along borders to provide early warning of attack, not a direct defensive effort.
Violations or not, do they matter? Most opponents of arms control call them "key" or "central," while defenders of the process and even some Administration officials call them "marginal." The defenders note that the Soviet Union has been scrupulous in abiding by other treaty provisions. Like the United States, it stays under SALT II's limits by destroying older missile launchers when deploying new ones.
More often than not, Soviet deviation from American expectations reflects the trouble that U.S. government lawyers have in drafting arms agreements to cover technology not yet invented.
Proponents of arms control also argue that the Reagan Administration has made poor use of the forum created to resolve U.S.-Soviet disputes over treaty compliance. The Standing Consultative Commission in Geneva was used effectively in the 1970s, and could be again if the Administration takes the right attitude to next week's special commission meeting.
Critics of the Administration charge that it would rather cry foul than right a wrong. Yet in their anxiety not to lose arms control, many of its supporters have fallen into the trap set for them. By refusing to confront the possibility that the Soviet Union will bend the rules or even cheat, they must deny the obvious, or shift ground as new facts appear, or seem to be apologists for Moscow. Politically, this is a real problem. Our culture frowns on any bending of rules, even if, as here, it is of little practical account.
In the argument about the morality of doing business with the Soviets, a clear view of the stakes gets lost. The United States makes arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union not because that country shares our values but because it doesn't, not because it is a friend but because it is an enemy--yet one able to blow up the world. Arms-control agreements must be based on U.S. self-interest, not on trust of Soviet motives or behavior. Ironically, that is the value invoked by hard-liners who want to use Americans' devotion to the rule of law to destroy the political basis for arms control.
To be sure, that political basis can be eroded by Soviet actions--whether they are cheaters or just Philadelphia lawyers--and this point must be impressed on Moscow. Washington must also demand that the Soviets abide by what they sign, and, if Soviet actions threaten U.S. security, they must know that we may be forced to the remedy of exceeding treaty limits. But, equally important, we must not damage ourselves in our zeal to remake Soviet society in our own image, or to expect the Kremlin to embrace Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence.
Valid arms-control agreements clearly benefit the United States by limiting the Soviets' offensive nuclear power and reducing the risks of war. Reagan himself has given this view priority by proposing a new summit meeting and agreement, despite his charges of cheating. But to make possible a progressive move away from unbridled nuclear competition he must also become an educator, explaining the dilemmas of U.S.-Soviet relations to the American people.
No President can publicly condone cheating or even crass exploitation of loopholes. But he can keep it in perspective. Otherwise the effort to reduce risks in the nuclear age could succumb to its enemies who invoke American values to defeat American interests.