WASHINGTON — Recent Soviet initiatives in the Geneva negotiations have generated a debate in Washington and a sense of expectation in Western Europe about the prospects for arms control. The Reagan Administration's response will depend on whether it views the Soviet offer as a serious one and, if so, on its willingness to accept limits on the Strategic Defense Initiative in exchange for Soviet offensive reductions, particularly in the "heavy" SS-18 force. The combination of these two factors leaves the President four possible outcomes to consider.
For the past five years, Washington and Moscow have engaged in a dialogue of the deaf. In the talks on strategic and intermediate-range forces, both sides have introduced disarmament proposals that they fully anticipated the other to reject. Some have bordered on the surreal. President Reagan publicly exhorted Moscow to participate in a cooperative transition to strategic defenses to remove the terrifying threat of nuclear weapons. No mean visionary himself, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev trumpeted a harmonious transition to a nuclear-free world by the year 2000.
Essentially, the arms-control process since 1981 has been little more than a propaganda game designed to win the hearts and minds of Western, and primarily European, publics. President Reagan has played this traditional Soviet game with consummate proficiency. The real question is whether he can, or chooses to, recognize the difference between Soviet tactics and substance.
This has assumed increasing importance in light of the June 11 Soviet proposal, significant, in the first instance, because it was presented in Geneva rather than announced publicly. The Soviets have proposed an aggregate of 8,000 missile and bomber warheads for both sides (which is more realistic than our proposed 6,000 warhead total), with a limit of 4,800 on land-based systems in exchange for a U.S. agreement to adhere to a strengthened Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty for a period of 15 to 20 years. Moscow has dropped demands for reductions in U.S. fighter-bombers based in Europe and a ban on all long-range air-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles. The latter would now be permitted on submarines. Although these concessions neither came as a surprise to Washington nor cost Moscow very much, they do suggest a seriousness of Soviet purpose.
Actually, the new Soviet proposal is the latest indication of Gorbachev's apparent desire to negotiate an arms agreement. This desire persists despite the U.S. order last March to reduce Soviet personnel attached to the United Nations in New York and despite strains resulting from President Reagan's raid against Libya. And notwithstanding Washington's decision to continue nuclear weapons testing, the Soviets have adhered to their test moratorium. The Kremlin's repeated references to the need for a second summit of substance and the so-called charm offensives with West European leaders further attest to Gorbachev's undisguised interest in a U.S. agreement.
That Gorbachev seems to be falling all over himself to strike a deal does not mean that the latest Soviet proposal constitutes an agreement waiting to be signed. It is unclear what effect a ban on new systems will have on the Midgetman missile, the Trident D-5 missile and the Stealth bomber. What a strict interpretation of the ABM Treaty means for the Strategic Defense Initiative also requires some elaboration. Moreover, the provisions of the proposal limiting increases in British and French strategic forces and prohibiting the transfer of missiles to third countries remain unacceptable.
Nor does the apparent Soviet interest in negotiating agreement mean that Soviet foreign policy is likely to become more moderate, any more than it did during the decade of detente. Indeed, Gorbachev's motivation appears to be influenced mainly by domestic considerations. An arms agreement that curtailed the defensive arms race would permit the Soviets, at least theoretically, to allocate greater resources to modernizing their economy. More important, it would legitimize Gorbachev within the Politburo and the military as a vigorous leader who can do business with the United States.
The latest Soviet arms proposal may well be a tactical ruse, as suggested by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, exclusively intended to derail SDI. Before deciding on a course of action, however, the President should consider the benefits and costs of a constructive versus cosmetic response to the Soviet offer.