George Aiken would approve of Ronald Reagan's achievement. The late Vermont Republican, one of the saintlier figures to grace the American Senate, was the man who suggested that the solution to our national turmoil over Vietnam was to declare victory and come home. In far happier circumstances, President Reagan now has an Aiken option of his own: He can declare victory in the negotiations on strategic defense and bring home a historic deal to cut nuclear forces drastically.
A strategic bargain of much grander proportions than the impending elimination of intermediate-range nuclear missiles has become a serious possibility. Recent changes in the Soviet position on strategic defense open the way for Reagan to have his cake and eat it too--to keep alive his Strategic Defense Initiative and still win the deep cuts in offensive forces he has long sought. This prospect explains why the President is lifting our sights beyond the Washington summit to next year's meeting in Moscow.
Elements of a strategic accommodation are already in place. What remains is to concentrate on resolving the crucial dispute over the future relationship between the massive offensive forces that exist and various defensive systems that might someday come to be.
Each country is apprehensive that introduction of novel defenses might undermine its deterrent. Gradually, however, it has become clear that such technologies, even if feasible, could not provide either side with decisive advantage. American and Soviet studies--including those by SDI scientists themselves--have convinced experts that both powers have the means to counter such defenses.
In this calmer atmosphere it is possible to consider the offense-defense equation more deliberately, free from alarmist rhetoric on either side. To a degree not widely known, Soviet and American negotiating positions currently contain the seeds of a sensible balance between reductions in offenses and assurances of continued restraint on defenses.
Reagan has emphasized that he does not seek to exploit SDI for military superiority. He has stressed that any transition to greater reliance on defenses should be a cooperative one. Attempting to reassure Moscow, he has proposed "open laboratories," permitting each side to track the other's work on defensive technologies. He has offered an explicit commitment not to withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty until the end of 1994, leaving to his successors the judgment as to whether developments warrant that action. And Secretary of State George P. Shultz has called for regular exchanges of information about planned tests.
For his part, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev now declares that SDI is not even a subject of negotiation, so long as the United States complies strictly with the ABM treaty. He admits forthrightly that "practically, the Soviet Union is doing all the United States is doing" in defensive research. The Soviets no longer demand that SDI be confined to the laboratory. Indeed, they confirm that the ABM treaty affords complete latitude for development and testing on the ground of so-called exotic defenses, and they are agreeable to significant tests in outer space.
From both Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, today's theme is strategic "predictability." The Soviets are pressing for a firmer commitment that both countries will abide by the ABM treaty as signed and ratified in 1972, meaning presumably the original interpretation Congress has endorsed. To bolster that commitment, they would like to specify certain critical technologies and define thresholds beyond which neither side will test in space. The Reagan Administration will not agree to any list of prohibited tests, but Gorbachev's remarkable flexibility creates vast room for cost-free compromise.
Why cost-free? Because the real constraints on SDI are not Soviet ploys to snarl it in legalistic chains. The basic constraints are technological, budgetary and legislative. No one can say whether the major technologies will advance sufficiently for application in a decade or two, or falter for generations, as work on controlled nuclear fusion has done. What one can say is that budgetary pressures are already imposing severe funding limits on SDI and that Congress has made clear it will not support a program that transgresses the ABM treaty. Potential diplomatic barriers to SDI now rank last in a long list.
In this context and at this time Reagan and Gorbachev need not settle the question of exactly which tests in space might run afoul of the treaty. Instead they could close on a strategic arms-reduction agreement by focusing on ways to guarantee that exploration of futuristic defenses would be genuinely cooperative. The time has come to implement Reagan's pledge of open laboratories.