WASHINGTON — An element of suspense attended conclusion of the agreement on intermediate-range missile forces to be signed by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev on Tuesday. The last difficult details on verification provisions were worked out only last week. But now the agreement is complete. The signing of a treaty eliminating all Soviet and U.S. land-based ballistic missiles with maximum ranges of 300 to 3,500 miles will be the centerpiece of the Washington summit, the first signed arms-control agreement between the two nations in eight years--and, if ratified, the first to be enforced in 15 years. Indeed, it will represent the first major agreement on any subject concluded between them in well over a decade.
Yet the INF Treaty may not be the most significant development at the summit. A still more important agreement for reducing strategic intercontinental arms by 50% hangs in the balance although the world may not know the outcome on that issue for several months.
The INF Treaty has been negotiated because the leaders of both countries believe it serves their national security--and it will. It begins a process of reduction of nuclear arms, the dismantling and destruction of hundreds of missiles and launchers, some recently built. In addition, it removes missiles that could be weapons of early resort. Despite some concerns that this may weaken deterrence, agreement is more likely to reduce possibilities of uncontrollable escalation if inadvertent hostilities should break out. This agreement, moreover, provides for asymmetrical reductions--in favor of the United States and its allies--and serves as a precedent for future asymmetrical reductions where one side holds a preponderance. Equally important, it includes provisions for verification and monitoring, including on-site inspection. This is another important precedent and an initial trial of measures necessary for strategic arms reductions.
Finally, the conclusion of this treaty by the Reagan Administration, after all it has done to undermine earlier arms-control agreements and stir suspicions about Soviet compliance, will re-legitimize the arms-control process. This, by itself, is no mean contribution.
Critics point to an artificiality of reductions in intermediate-range weapons while longer- and shorter-range weaponry continues unconstrained. But if the INF agreement is a first step, followed by negotiated agreements reducing other nuclear weaponry, it will serve as the opening wedge in a broader arms-control process.
The future prospect for additional agreements on arms limitation and reduction is more promising than the bleak history of Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction Talks, Strategic Arms Limitations Talks and Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) over the last 15 years would suggest. New negotiations on conventional arms in Europe will probably begin next spring. And negotiations are already far advanced on strategic-arms reductions on the order of a 50% cut in number of nuclear warheads.
The most significant potential development at the summit involves discussion of strategic reductions. Both Reagan and Gorbachev endorsed the goal of 50% strategic reductions at their first meeting in Geneva two years ago. Now, they seem to share a belief that such an agreement can be reached within a few months, in time for signing of a new accord at a follow-up summit meeting in Moscow in mid-1988. They will probably endorse that this week. Is it realistic?
There are three quite different--and difficult--problems, in addition to many secondary issues. One is resolution of remaining issues on "sublimits" imposing constraints and ceilings on specific parts of the strategic forces. In particular, the United States wants to impose heavier constraints on (Soviet) land-based ICBMs, and lesser ones on (U.S.) sea-based ballistic missiles.
The second major problem is verification of reductions. But while essential, and not easy, verification will not prove a serious issue given the remarkable shift in Soviet attitudes on the subject already displayed in the INF agreement.
The third problem is quite different: It is the question of parallel constraints on strategic anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defenses--above all, space-based systems--a Soviet demand. The Soviets stress the interrelationship between strategic offensive and defensive systems, and the potential offensive as well as defensive roles of space weaponry.
Both during Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze's talks in Washington in September and Secretary of State George P. Shultz's talks in Moscow in October, the Soviet side disclosed changes in its position, narrowing the gap between the two sides. Provided the ABM issue is dealt with, a mutual compromise on strategic sublimits and verification can be reached.