An agreement to agree sometime soon to destroy the world's medium-range nuclear missiles is a triumph whose importance cannot be measured by mere arithmetic.
Assuming that the United States and the Soviet Union can agree on the fine print in a treaty to dismantle medium-range missiles, they still would have thousands of warheads on bombers, submarines and other launching pads in and around Europe. They would have tens of thousands of nuclear warheads elsewhere around the world. Measured against these remaining weapons, the reduction in Europe would seem scarcely dramatic enough to warrant warnings against euphoria from both Moscow and London.
But what is singular about President Reagan's announcement Friday of an "agreement in principle" is that it seems to be at the head of a parade of events, all moving in the same general direction, brushing aside a lot of conflicting cross-traffic. A major element of the parade was a series of discussions so wide-ranging and central to the interests of both nations that Secretary of State George P. Shultz speculated at one point that they may have seen the crest of the nuclear arms race. The discussions included a revival of a ban against testing nuclear warheads of any kind--a concept that assumes slowing down, or stopping, an arms race the way a flow of water can be stopped by crimping a garden hose without actually turning off a faucet.
The Reagan Administration has resisted such a ban, arguing that it must keep testing to improve nuclear forces and to make certain that old weapons work. Yet the focus last week was not on whether to ban testing but on techniques for making certain that neither side could cheat on a test-ban treaty.
Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze also touched on human rights, reductions in conventional ground and air troops by both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact, 50% reductions in each nation's arsenal of long-range missiles and the future of the 1972 anti-ballistic-missile treaty that limits the testing and deployment of anti-missile defenses.
The least tractable issue was the ABM treaty, which the President insists be modified to allow the testing of his "Star Wars" missile-defense project and the Soviets insist be kept intact, hoping that this will block the project. The President twice rejected proposals to extend the treaty last week, leading Shevardnadze to say that Moscow had about given up hope that he could ever be talked around.
But the U.S. Senate voted last week to limit future Star Wars tests to those that would not bend the ABM treaty. The Senate seems quite serious about preempting the ABM decision. Congress balked at intervening in arms-control matters just before the 1986 summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland. The Senate did not hesitate to do so last week.
Arms-control agreements have all represented victories of political imperatives over the military instinct to accumulate maximum firepower. Past agreements have set targets toward which the military could accumulate weapons. The medium-range-missile agreement would be the first to call for the destruction of existing firepower.
The imperatives that led both nations this close to the first arms-control treaty in 15 years are complex and speculative. That U.S. deployment of missiles so close to the Soviet Union had something to do with it seems clear, as does General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev's need for elbow room while he tries to get his country's economy moving. The President has reached an age and a point in his term when his legacy assumes major importance.
The nuclear arithmetic of the agreement has little military significance. Its position at the head of a parade of events that could lead to further arms reductions that would allow the two systems to compete in peace is what makes it a triumph.