WASHINGTON — On the eve of their three-day summit conference here, President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev are focusing on an arms control agreement far more ambitious than the historic treaty they are prepared to sign Tuesday eliminating all medium-range nuclear missiles.
Both superpower leaders, American officials say, are determined to seek agreement on the outlines of a strategic arms, or START, treaty that would slash by 50% their countries' arsenals of long-range intercontinental missiles--the most powerful and menacing of all nuclear weapons.
"They'll be discussing START most of the time. That's what this summit's mostly about, and that's why the signing of the INF (intermediate-range nuclear forces, as the medium-range weapons are called) treaty was scheduled for the first day of the summit," a senior Administration official said.
'Won't Back Away'
"The President won't back away from bringing up human rights and other issues, such as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but that won't sour the summit," he said. "The President and Gorbachev both are determined to try to reach an agreement on START."
And the two leaders' determination to make progress on START reflects their overarching aim: to achieve a greater degree of stability in the relationship between the superpowers, according to senior U.S. officials.
"We are entering the fourth major period (since World War II) in which some progress toward settling our rivalry with the Soviet Union is possible," William G. Hyland, a senior national security aide in the Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford administrations and now editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote recently. The first such opportunity occurred after Stalin's death in 1953, the second after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the third during the detente period of 1969-72.
Each yielded some progress, Hyland said, but in the end each failed. "It is this inability to stabilize the relationship that is dangerous," Hyland said, because each irritant pushes the two nations toward confrontation--and each confrontation carries the peril of conflict.
Thus, continued progress on arms control--in this case, a START agreement--has become a kind of litmus test for progress toward the larger goal of increasing the stability and safety of each side.
It was just this goal that Reagan emphasized in his Saturday radio address. Referring to the INF treaty, the President said: "We must also recognize our obligation to ensure the peace, in particular to search for areas where America and the Soviet Union can act together to reduce the risk of war. This summit meeting and treaty represent . . . steps taken together to ensure the peace."
As far as START is concerned, the most optimistic officials in the Administration suggest that such a pact could be completed in time for signing at another summit in Moscow next spring or summer, though other government analysts say the technical, diplomatic and political issues raised by START are so vast that completing an agreement so quickly will be very difficult.
While the superpowers appear close to agreement on START, with both Reagan and Gorbachev accepting a once-unimaginable 50% reduction in total strategic weapons, two major difficulties lie just below the surface:
- The Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars," anti-missile defense system that Reagan is determined to develop. While Moscow has indicated some flexibility, U.S. analysts say it is still unwilling to make drastic cuts in strategic weapons without some assurance that this country will not suddenly deploy a shield against the reduced Soviet force.
- The so-called sublimits question. Though the two sides agree on the total reduction, over the years they have put their nuclear eggs in very different sets of baskets; Moscow has leaned heavily on huge land-based missiles, while the United States has a more diversified arsenal, with greater reliance on nuclear-armed submarines, bombers and cruise missiles. The two sides have still not agreed on how many of each kind of weapon to eliminate.
A decision on this mix, whatever it should turn out to be, would have enormous military, political and even economic consequences in the near and long term.
Beyond the challenges posed by the issues themselves, prospects for a breakthrough on START are further clouded by the climate in which Reagan--and Gorbachev--must negotiate. The third summit meeting between the two, an on-again-off-again event for the past year, comes at a time when festering problems at home appear to limit their freedom to maneuver in foreign affairs.
For Reagan, the stock market crash and the Iran-Contra scandal inflicted damaging blows. And the clamorous opposition to the INF treaty among some of his right-wing supporters has created additional problems, just as Gorbachev has suffered a setback from the sudden dismissal of an outspoken champion of his reform programs in Moscow.