In the last month a number of Americans have become optimistic about the possibility of a nuclear-arms-control agreement and a summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In fact, the odds on these developments are poor, and the continual speculation is distracting us from important steps that actually are possible--such as an agreement on conventional arms.
In the 1970s we got used to Washington and Moscow wanting agreements for agreements' sake. Conservatives were right in saying that arms-control treaties really didn't limit the Soviet Union, but these treaties didn't really limit the United States, either. The agreements basically "prevented" the U.S. and Soviet militaries from doing what they didn't want to do, and they included plenty of loopholes in case either side changed its mind. The anti-ballistic missile treaty, for example, let both sides conduct vigorous research. Each side also could end the treaty with only six months' notice. The SALT II treaty was so loose that Reagan, who once called it "fatally flawed," has been able to observe it for six years. Even now he has to strain to violate its limits by a small margin.
Gorbachev, however, is talking a very different game. He is offering many concessions--quite meaningful concessions--but as a condition is demanding that the United States fundamentally limit its technological advances in the space-related realms. He is insisting that the loopholes in the ABM treaty be closed and that the United States not be free to abrogate the treaty until the early 21st Century--limiting the Strategic Defense Initiative and anti-satellite weapon development to laboratory research for that period. And Gorbachev is saying that without real progress on nuclear arms control there will not be another summit meeting this year.
For his part, Reagan has spoken about the necessity for really meaningful arms control and about his willingness to observe the ABM treaty. But he has not weakened his commitment to SDI. If he is serious about that, he will not accept Gorbachev's ABM proposal.
The questions are: Is either of these leaders bluffing? Is SDI just a bargaining chip for the President? Will he at least accept limitations on it?
More important, since few believe that the President will place severe restrictions on SDI, will Gorbachev make further concessions and accept cosmetic restrictions? Will he back off his linkage of a limitation of SDI, however it is done, with limitations on offensive missiles? Will he still come to a summit even if no real progress is made on arms control?
The continuing optimism about a nuclear agreement and about the summit is based on the assumption that Gorbachev is like the late Leonid I. Brezhnev and that he needs an agreement--any arms-control agreement--for economic reasons. Hence it is assumed that Gorbachev will in fact retreat from his major demands.
It is a most doubtful assumption, for the political needs of Brezhnev and Gorbachev are diametrically different. Brezhnev knew that Soviet technological backwardness was creating major defense problems, and that this in turn was creating strong pressure for economic reform. Brezhnev did not want such reform, and arms-control agreements (even meaningless ones) were useful to give a false impression at home that American technology was under control, thus reducing the pressure. This political consideration was so important to Brezhnev that he made the unprecedented concession of large-scale Jewish emigration to obtain agreements.
Gorbachev, by contrast, wants economic reform. Hence he has absolutely no self-interest in agreements that pretend to control American technology. If anything, he has a self-interest in exaggerating the consequences of backwardness for the defense of the country. That is a useful way to persuade conservatives that they must accept radical reform.
Similarly, the Soviet leader has no self-interest in a summit without results. Reagan has used the prospect of forthcoming meetings with the Soviets to support his defense proposals in Congress. He says that Congress cannot undercut his bargaining position by cutting expenditures before an agreement. If there are annual summits but no agreements, the President can argue every year that his military budget cannot be touched--a position that is not in Gorbachev's interest.
The tragedy with the perennial optimism on nuclear-arms agreements is that it limits progress where both sides have a clear self-interest in a major arms-control agreement: a large-scale reduction of conventional military forces. The military situation in Europe is very stable, and the number of troops facing each other there is quite unnecessary--and enormously expensive. Soviet economic problems and the American deficit would be eased by such an agreement. Gorbachev has made a very forthcoming offer. The time has come for those who want stability and arms control to end their obsessive search for any nuclear-control agreement, even if cosmetic, and work for a non-nuclear one that would be meaningful for both sides.