WASHINGTON — The remaining obstacles to a superpower accord on medium- and short-range nuclear missiles now appear to be shrinking. Two of the biggest stumbling blocks--the retention of small missile forces outside of Europe and agreed verification provisions--are ripe for solution: The Soviets have hinted at their willingness to eliminate all missiles on a global basis, a step U.S. officials claim would obviate their proposals for highly intrusive, continuous on-site inspections in both countries. If these developments are confirmed when Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze meet, the stage will be set for a summit.
Summits and ratified arms-control agreements, however, have a way of eluding political leaders. Many details remain unresolved in the negotiations and unexpected developments can derail or complicate the treaty ratification process. For example, ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty was delayed temporarily by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the SALT II Treaty was permanently shelved after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Progress in arms control is also bedevilled by Newton's Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In both countries, prospective agreements generate new weapons programs to "safeguard" the accord and ensure negotiation from strength in the future. In this way, those most unhappy with the arms-control process can at least try to limit the damage done by subsequent accords, even if they cannot block ratification.
With a prospective agreement on medium and short-range missiles shaping up, those anxious about the "decoupling" of the United States from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are sure to devise safeguards against the further denuclearization of Western Europe. More extreme arms-control opponents in the United States could resort to desperation tactics, including a concerted effort to press President Reagan to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
A coalition of pro-SDI groups has already begun lobbying Reagan to invoke Article XV of the treaty, which permits unilateral withdrawal due to "extraordinary events" after six months' notice has been given. President Jimmy Carter employed this tactic when he unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Taiwan Defense Treaty over the opposition of Senate conservatives. He was supported by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, that noted the Senate imposed no conditions on the President's right to withdraw when it ratified the treaty. The same is true for the ABM Treaty; if congressional treaty supporters attempt to impose such a condition now, they face the difficult task of overriding a presidential veto.
Enthusiasts for the Strategic Defense Initiative are coalescing behind this desperation tactic because the program has begun to sputter, a victim of its own erratic course, serious technical uncertainties and strong political opposition.
Significant majorities in the Congress have refused to support large SDI funding increases or to endorse early deployments. The recent attempt by Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) to rally the faithful on the latter issue garnered just 122 votes. The Administration's effort to concoct a broad interpretation of the ABM Treaty has fared little better, particularly after running afoul of Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). Backed into this corner, SDI supporters have begun to turn on each other. At a High Frontier gala in March, Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) lashed out at the "hijacking" of SDI by "fretful geniuses" who "mixed strategic defense, which was supposed to be cure for the ravages of arms control, with the arms-control process itself. They gave the cure a massive dose of the disease."
Where do strategic fundamentalists like Wallop and Kemp go from here? They have few options. If they cannot ensure SDI deployments, at least they can try to kill the ABM Treaty outright, thus removing the most important obstacle to their vision of U.S. security.
As in the past, arms-control opponents can be expected to frame the issue as a loyalty test to Reagan's most heartfelt national-security initiative: National Security Council members would be asked, yet again, if they were "for" SDI or "against" it. Since realistic SDI tests cannot be conducted within the narrow interpretation of the ABM Treaty and since the Senate appears unwilling to adopt the broad interpretation, they will argue that the entire treaty must go. In effect, Reagan will be asked to protect his legacy by making a tough decision: ending compliance with an agreement that has been incontrovertibly violated by the Kremlin. If an agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces is pending at this time, all the more reason for arms-control opponents to attack the ABM Treaty, leaving Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev with the awkward choice of deciding whether to forgo a summit and a treaty he badly wants.