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The Empty Page

December 06, 1987

The United States and the Soviet Union have never declared war on each other. Neither have they declared peace. One result is a blank page in the history of their relations. Over the centuries, other great powers have filled that page--usually after testing one another in battle--with rules for traditional negotiations. The rules say that they should search together for ways to dispose of difficulties that would, at least to some degree, leave both better off.

Nearly 30 years of arms-control negotiations have failed to establish such a tradition for Washington and Moscow, because both bargain in the belief that any basic change would leave one or the other worse off. Arms-control talks may have made it easier for strategic planners to calculate the terms on which nuclear war might someday be fought, but they also have left plenty of running room for the arms race.

Writing anything at all on the blank page is the challenge of this week's summit meeting in Washington between President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev. To meet the challenge, they must talk candidly about what their very different societies are trying to achieve and how difficult it is for either of them to reach its goals armed to the teeth.

Much divides them, but they have two things in common. They want to reduce the threat of nuclear war. They want to make certain that one country will not achieve its national goals at the expense of the other. They don't have to get into details at the summit. But what they may not have another chance to do is agree to negotiate according to the rules that most other great powers follow. Once that is settled, experts can take over the agonizing task of negotiating details. Over months, and perhaps years, what they have in common can lead to sharp reductions in nuclear forces and changes in the way air and ground forces are deployed to make it less likely that either could pounce first.

Reagan should agree to a long-term extension of the 1972 anti-ballistic-missile treaty that limits testing and deployment of nuclear defenses, writing new terms if necessary to slow the development both of the President's "Star Wars" program and Gorbachev's own research on missile defense. Star Wars is already a fiction of science that can become fact only with decades of research. There are just too many principles of physics blocking the way to a defense system that the Pentagon cannot overwhelm by brute force. Gorbachev, in turn, has nothing to fear. No international law created by treaty can be as sturdy and as binding as the universal limits imposed by the law of physics.

Gorbachev should agree, as part of a deal to cut missile forces in half, to dismantle large numbers of the very heavy SS-18 missiles that are capable of carrying 20 to 30 warheads each. He should do this in order to ease concerns among American strategic planners that those heavy missiles could wipe out all American land-based nuclear missiles in a single surprise attack.

Merely to signify a willingness to let detailed negotiations along these lines begin would be a historic first step toward reducing the threat that nuclear weapons pose not only for the United States and the Soviet Union but also for the rest of the world. It would also start the essential task of filling the blank page of history with genuine negotiations--the kind in which both sides stand to gain.

Issues that divide the United States and the Soviet Union, on which they seem to have nothing in common, can be approached in the same manner. Afghanistan, human rights, Soviet and Cuban support for Nicaragua, tanks massed along the East-West borders, Soviet probing for soft spots around the world raise hackles in a live-and-let-live nation like America.

Discussions between Soviet and American specialists concerning mutual vexations in these and other fields have in fact been going on rather unobtrusively for months. Surely some of what representatives of both sides have learned must have trickled up to form at least part of the base for the summit agenda.

In a recent book, "Strategy" (Belknap-Harvard Press), military analyst Edward N. Luttwak writes that the beginnings of negotiations to end most of the wars in history have followed almost identical patterns. They begin when leaders of warring nations start to compare the results that they had hoped for when combat started not "to the sacrifices already made but rather to the further sacrifices that seem likely if the war continues." As the shape of future sacrifices forces leaders to lower their sights, they change their minds about what they will settle for. Eventually there is so little difference in what they will settle for that wars stop.

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