The flurry of recent activity by U.S. and Soviet officials suggest that an agreement eliminating shorter- and intermediate-range nuclear forces is close at hand, while the prospects for one reducing strategic, long-range missiles are fading.
In the last two weeks the Soviet Union has tabled new proposals on INF, strategic offensive forces and space or anti-ballistic-missile weapons. Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev agreed to eliminate all SS-20 missiles based in Asia, clearing away one of the major remaining obstacles to an INF agreement.
The quick acceptance of the Soviet offer by the United States and the announcement of a September meeting between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze demonstrate how anxious the Reagan Administration is to conclude an INF deal and move toward another summit meeting. Given the political momentum behind the INF talks, compromises on the remaining differences are likely to come quickly so that the negotiations can be completed in time for a meeting between the two superpowers near the end of this year.
The INF deal is certainly a sweet one for the United States. It would require the Soviets to dismantle almost five times as many nuclear warheads. The verification package, including provisions for on-site inspection and extensive exchanges of weapons data, would also be the most far-reaching in the history of nuclear-arms talks. It would set a valuable precedent for any future treaty reducing strategic missiles.
But in purely military terms the contribution of an INF treaty is limited. The agreement would not eliminate a single Soviet nuclear weapon capable of striking the United States. Far more important to improving the safety and security of the world would be an agreement between Washington and Moscow to reduce the 25,000 strategic nuclear weapons that both possess.
Yet even after the tabling of new draft treaties by both the United States and the Soviet Union, the negotiations in Geneva on the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons are at a standstill because no progress has been made on the related issue of limits on space weapons. Although the Soviets have indicated in their most recent proposal that they are willing to agree to some testing under the Strategic Defense Initiative, U.S. negotiators are forbidden to even discuss a possible compromise with their Soviet counterparts. As indicated by the Administration's swift rejection of the latest Soviet offer on space weapons, any compromise is perceived by the President and some of his advisers as tantamount to surrender. Such a compromise is essential, however, if we hope to achieve the major reductions in Soviet strategic missiles that were discussed in Reykjavik last October.
Most of the President's advisers are unwilling to tell him that he can have a robust SDI research program, with some limitations on testing, and achieve major reductions in strategic nuclear missiles. Presidential arms-control adviser Paul Nitze has argued correctly that the choice is not simply between SDI and arms control, but thus far he has received little hearing at the White House.
The principal effect of an INF agreement would be political. No doubt it would divert the media's and the public's attention away from the Iran- contra scandal--a prospect that the White House and the Republican Party will certainly welcome.
A new treaty would also get President Reagan off the hook on arms control. While the American people have never doubted the President's commitment to arming the nation, they are not yet certain that he is sincere in his efforts to negotiate an end to the arms race. An INF treaty would allow Reagan to leave behind a positive legacy on arms control.
A President as conservative as Ronald Reagan, striking a deal with the Soviets, lends legitimacy to arms control as a vital element of American national-security policy. Reagan has not come willingly to this position, but after six years in office he has learned that the American people are strongly committed to agreements that curb the arms race.
The completion of an INF treaty and the setting of a date for a Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting could have an immediate effect on the Senate debate concerning the military budget. The Democrats have advanced amendments that would require adherence to the SALT II and ABM treaties, and keep spending on "Star Wars" to last year's level. Because of these amendments, the Republicans have blocked action on this year's military budget. The Senate has been deadlocked on the issue for months.
Reagan, though, could use the excuse of the summit to trot out the familiar "don't undercut me" argument that has worked so well in the past. House Democrats were pressured to give up similar arms-control amendments on the eve of the Reykjavik summit meeting. Reagan would undoubtedly try to use an impending summit to get his way on the defense bill and remove the offending amendments.