Henry A. Kissinger's important service to our nation needs no recitation; his auto-biographies provide a brilliant and effective apologia. Yet his very eminence in our national debate obliges others to take account of the erratic course that his views have taken over the years. The evolution of his thinking on nuclear strategy and arms control is perplexing; it gives one pause when assessing his negative counsel on President Reagan's unprecedented opportunity in arms control.
In the early 1970s, after the initial SALT agreements were concluded, Secretary Kissinger suggested that no one had told him what a world with multiple-warhead missiles would be like. In fact the Senate had done so, by an overwhelming expression of concern that the negotiations must address the MIRV problem in timely fashion. But Kissinger resented that congressional recommendation and ignored it.
The proponents of MIRV, including not only Kissinger but also his frequent nemesis, Richard N. Perle, saw political leverage in the program. Even though the superpowers had curtailed the missile defenses that the multiple-warhead technology was designed to penetrate, its advocates chose to exploit the program without regard to the prospect that a Soviet-American competition in such technology would generate the awesome arsenals now threatening us. A decade later Kissinger was joining the call for de-MIRVing the missile forces to cure the problem created by the earlier mistake.
For some years now those who urged us to enter the world of MIRV have assailed the drastic increases in nuclear weaponry spawned by the ill-considered technological innovations that they endorsed. Yet a number of them, notably Kissinger, have simultaneously seemed contemptuous of practical measures to begin redressing the trends toward ever-more-numerous strategic forces.
In 1979 Secretary Kissinger's pronounced skepticism about the SALT II treaty, coupled with demands for amendments and collateral conditions, was one of the factors that bogged down the ratification process. Even though that accord incorporated and went beyond the Vladivostok agreement, which President Gerald R. Ford had reached with Leonid I. Brezhnev in 1974, Kissinger and Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr. chose to stress its inadequacies. Their position made it difficult to forge a bipartisan coalition to treat the modest force reductions required by SALT II as a useful first step toward more meaningful constraints on nuclear capabilities. Instead of expediting negotiations on the many critical issues that remained to be addressed, Americans found themselves divided by lingering disputes over SALT II.
Of late, Kissinger has conveyed a more general condemnation of arms control. He has cast doubt on the value of reducing the scale of nuclear deployments. What difference does it make, he asks, whether there are 11,000 strategic warheads on each side or 6,000, as proposed at Reykjavik?
That is the wrong question. It makes little sense to think of these destructive capabilities only in narrow military terms. Even with 6,000 warheads each, the Soviet Union and the United States will retain physical power beyond imagining. The crucial question concerns their likely political behavior in the presence of such forces: Will the two governments be able to muster mutual restraint in a highly threatening environment marked by large increases in their deployments, perhaps to 15,000 weapons each in the early 1990s, or will they facilitate restraint by cooperating to regulate a menace that they do not know how to eliminate?
It is hard to see how an unregulated strategic contest will improve our capacity to manage the frictions and contradictions that will persist in Soviet-American relations. Antipathy toward President Reagan's efforts to achieve substantial force reductions works to undermine a historic opportunity to stop the upward spiral of offensive forces--an opportunity that neither Kissinger nor I nor anyone else was able to create during our time in office.
Kissinger's current stance is nowhere so pernicious as in his astonishing revisionism toward the anti-ballistic-missile treaty. He acknowledges that, although he has not reviewed the documents, the Administration in which he served submitted the treaty to the Senate with a "narrow interpretation." But the former secretary of state asserts--mistakenly, as Sen. Sam Nunn has now demonstrated authoritatively--that the Soviets adopted the "broad interpretation" from the outset, and that the United States should now do the same. Does this mean that he and his associates did not know what they were doing in 1972, or that they misled the Senate by setting forth an interpretation of the treaty other than the one agreed to with the Soviets? Neither, one suspects. Rather, Kissinger's personal position has changed as he has come to look fondly on the Strategic Defense Initiative, another of the technologies that periodically excite his fancy.