The primary focus of President Reagan's speech before the United Nations (Times, Sept 23) was the bilateral relationship between the two superpowers--the United States and the Soviet Union--both of which are, in effect, competing in a nuclear arms race.
The President expressed reserved optimism about the chances for reaching agreements with the Soviets on intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the reduction of offensive weapons and on nuclear testing. Each and all of these would be great accomplishments if and when converted into realities.
The major stumbling block appears to be Reagan's insistent and enthusiastic promotion of his Strategic Defense Initiative program. Here we note Reagan's own observation that "Nations do not mistrust each other because they are armed; they are armed because they mistrust each other."
What, then, does the accumulation of 50,000 nuclear warheads in the United States and the Soviet Union arsenals imply? Yet, Reagan offered Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev only his casual, verbal assurances that we wouldn't use SDI as a first-strike instrument, apparently expecting him to believe and accept them in good faith.
Suppose, however, the Soviets were on the verge of a breakthrough in developing a space-defense system ahead of us. Would we then trust Gorbachev if he gave us verbal assurances as to his good intentions and promises not to use it as a first-strike weapon against us?
Certainly not our defense secretary, Caspar W. Weinberger. According to him, such a Soviet breakthrough "would seriously tilt the balance against us and put us at great risk." And he views its possibility as "one of the most frightening prospects" imaginable. Should we expect the Russians to assess our SDI differently?
Reagan usually combines his push for SDI with the requirement that sharp reductions be made in the offensive weapons of both sides. While enhancing the effectiveness of our defense system, such would also lessen the Soviet strategic power.
Is it surprising that Gorbachev and his spokesmen repeatedly condemn our SDI program as if it were only a destabilizing and poorly camouflaged first-strike system? They have agreed that strict research on strategic defense, by both us and them, cannot be stopped. But they also warn us that their response to our actual SDI effort, and breaking of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, will be the development of counter-measures and increases in their offensive forces, rather than the cuts demanded by Reagan. Would we do any less if the tables were turned?
Many scientists express serious concern as to the technical practicality of SDI, and, even if it's at all feasible, as to its limitation to protecting our own missile silos rather than our population.
Of course, our own security and self-interest must be our highest priority. We cannot compromise our resolve for self-defense. But such can't be maintained with stability unless the Soviets also feel that their security and self-interest are equally satisfied.
Now that Nicholas Daniloff has been released, we should no longer be diverted from the main hurdles in stopping the arms race, i.e. the preservation of the ABM treaty and limitation of SDI to strict research.
If both sides should adopt these conditions Reagan's optimism about successful negotiations on intermediate-range missiles, the reductions in offensive weapons and nuclear testing will have a good chance for realization.