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Nuclear Roller Coaster

November 09, 1986

When the U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Iceland broke up in disagreement over the restraints to be put on strategic missile defense programs, disappointment was mixed with hope that the superpowers would be able to build on the seeming near-miss at Reykjavik in follow-up negotiations. That hope has been greatly diminished by the dismal results of last week's meeting in Vienna between U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze.

Both sides agreed that the five hours of conversations between the two men failed to produce any progress toward arms-control agreements. The subject of a possible visit to the United States by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev didn't even arise. No plans were made for a future meeting at the foreign ministers' level.

The Reagan Administration and the Kremlin leadership are standing firm on the issue that produced the impasse at Reykjavik: President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars." The President refuses to accept constraints on plans for developing and testing components for a strategic missile defense system. The Soviets still insist that agreements to cut offensive nuclear forces are impossible unless SDI is kept inside the laboratory.

It does appear that Shultz went to Vienna in a more workmanlike frame of mind than did Shevardnadze, who did not even take senior military experts with him. The United States wanted agreement on a list of what was decided and not decided at Reykjavik before the meeting broke up over SDI; such a clarification would seem to be clearly needed in light of the post-summit confusion over just what transpired. However, Shevardnadze insisted, in effect, that Shultz accept the Soviet version, which differs in important particulars from the now-official U.S. interpretation.

The conclusion is hard to escape that, mindful of last Tuesday's Democratic takeover of the Senate, the Soviets have decided to stonewall until they see what restraints the new Congress may put on Star Wars. They may also be waiting for the results of the West German elections in January. Even worse, the Kremlin may be writing off Reagan as a negotiating partner in hope of getting a better deal from the next Administration.

If the Soviet leaders are playing a game of wait and see, we believe that they are making a serious mistake. Although the new Congress almost certainly will not give Reagan the kind of backing that he wants on SDI, it does not follow that the program will be curtailed in the ways desired by Moscow. Besides, what one Congress does, another can undo as perceptions of the Soviet threat change. If Gorbachev really wants the U.S. strategic defense program held within predictable bounds over the next 10 to 20 years, he would be wise to continue pursuing a treaty now.

Experience suggests that a conservative American President can more easily win Senate approval of arms-control agreements than can a more liberal Chief Executive. And time is running out for Ronald Reagan. As a practical matter, only one more year remains in which to negotiate a significant reduction in nuclear arms before election-year politics becomes a dominant, disruptive consideration in Washington.

Reagan deserves severe criticism for his rigid resistance to any interference with SDI. But the world also has a right to expect the Soviets to approach negotiations with greater reason and flexibility than they showed last week in Vienna.

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