WASHINGTON — A mystery of political power is how to lead devoted constituencies in new directions without betraying them. Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised in 1940 to keep Americans out of a war, World War II, he knew they had to enter. Richard M. Nixon promised not to deal with a country, China, he knew the United States had to recognize. Charles de Gaulle said he understood a French nation that wanted to keep a colony, Algeria, he knew was destined to be free.
The big question facing the Reagan Administration is whether the President can sign an arms agreement he has always told his followers was inadequate--one that would build on SALT II and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and that would reshape his beguiling dream of a perfect defense against nuclear attack in a way that would reflect scientific and diplomatic realities.
By taking such a step, Ronald Reagan could go down in history as a major figure in U.S. foreign policy. For not only might he then be able to reach a major arms-control agreement, he might succeed, like Roosevelt or Nixon, in establishing a true national consensus over a highly sensitive subject.
None of this seemed possible in 1980. Though the liberal community tries to reassure itself that, but for Reagan, the arms-control process would have made significant progress by now, the truth is that when Reagan entered the White House, arms-control negotiations were in a political cul-de-sac.
In the American system a fiercely opposed minority can ensure stalemate on a few highly sensitive issues. Race relations was such an issue at one time. In recent years, arms control and relations with the Soviet Union have proved too difficult for the American system of government to handle. The Senate never ratified the Threshold Test Ban Treaty of 1974, the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty of 1976 and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) of 1979.
But now Reagan has an opportunity to lead the country out of this cul-de-sac because of a new factor: Each superpower is running out of money. Fortuitously, the U.S. Congress recognized this reality about the same time as the new leadership in the Soviet Union realized it.
An unexpected achievement of the Reagan presidency has been to prove that this country cannot spend its way to security. Excluding inflation, the Reagan Administration in its first five years in office increased the defense budget 51% while slashing domestic programs (excluding Social Security and interest on the national debt) 30%. This represented an astounding $330 billion in cumulative real growth in the U.S. defense effort. Yet the Administration admits that even if it receives every penny it requests, at the end of the process the Soviet Union will still have more missiles, tanks and naval vessels than the United States.
Mikhail S. Gorbachev seems to have reached similarly disturbing conclusions. In any event, he seems to have openly challenged the views of the Soviet military. His Politburo, unlike Leonid I. Brezhnev's, does not include a single top soldier as a full or voting member. In addition, whereas some Soviet generals have publicly argued that the international situation resembles the 1930s, with "international imperialism" again threatening the Soviet homeland and justifying a continued defense buildup, Gorbachev told the 40th V-E Day rally that today's situation is "absolutely unlike" the 1930s.
Gorbachev has gone on to reverse the postwar pattern of arms-control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Customarily the United States has advanced concrete arms-control proposals while the Soviet Union concentrated on grandiose schemes designed primarily for propaganda. Today the concrete proposals are from Moscow and the public-relations replies from Washington.
Under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union has matched Reagan's dreamy vision of a world protected from nuclear weapons through a "Star Wars" defense by proposing more concretely that the world make itself safer by beginning to dismantle some of the threatening arsenals. It has announced a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, and repeatedly extended it--most recently until next Jan. 1; permitted U.S. scientists to discuss verification experiments on Soviet soil, and challenged the United States to use this period to negotiate a comprehensive test-ban treaty. In addition, Gorbachev has proposed significant reductions in offensive nuclear weapons (provided Reagan renounces his Strategic Defense Initiative); decoupled any U.S.-Soviet agreement on intermediate-range systems in Europe from agreement to end the quest for SDI, and held out hope for progress in the Conference on Disarmament in Europe, the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction Talks and U.S.-Soviet negotiations to eliminate chemical weapons.