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THE Power OF A Piece OF Paper

December 13, 1987|Thomas Powers | Thomas Powers, author of the "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and The CIA," and "Thinking About the Next War," is working on a history of strategic weapons

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — It was not just a scrap of paper but something closer to a reprieve that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev signed in Washington last week, thereby tacking at least 10 minutes onto the expected life span of Western civilization. You'd think everybody might raise a glass of Christmas eggnog to that, but when the auditors tote up the balance sheet for the new INF Treaty, you can bet they will heavily discount--if they take trouble to notice at all--the sigh of relief from those who actually live inside the target circles.

"Target" is a word that should suggest shooting and violence. No one professionally involved in the business of national defense thinks of "intermediate-range nuclear forces"--missiles with a range between 300 and 3,100 miles--as actual weapons. All agree they're too dangerous to use. Arms treaties have other purposes--securing Reagan's place in history, for example, or freeing billions of rubles for Gorbachev's economic reforms.

But the real significance of the INF Treaty is hidden in plain sight. It will reduce the level of violence in the event of a big war in Europe--a continent so crowded that the experts sometimes talk of German towns as being only two kilotons apart.

Since we are talking about scrapping 2,600 missiles, this ought to qualify as a big deal. But skeptics of the right will say the treaty only exchanges one threat for another--Soviet nukes for Soviet tanks, that still outnumber North Atlantic Treaty Organization tanks three to one. Skeptics of the left will say the treaty doesn't matter because both sides retain nukes enough of other types to leave Europe looking like an empty K mart parking lot. Skeptics of the center will say the Euromissile controversy was all politics from the beginning. If you listen to the skeptics you can't help wondering why both sides fought so long over what amounts to a scrap of paper.

The hardest thing in any arms-control negotiation is to take an agreement seriously after it's signed. The agreements seem so paltry, the effort so long and wearing, the remaining arsenal so large. The first U.S.-Soviet agreement of real significance was signed in 1963, close to 25 years ago. It banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere but did nothing to limit tests underground--both sides have developed and tested scores of new warheads since the ban went into effect. "What difference did it make?" the skeptics ask.

In 1972, we signed the first SALT agreement, which set "limits" on strategic weapons--that is, it allowed us to build new weapons already on the drawing board.

The second SALT agreement, signed in 1979 but never ratified, "allowed" both sides to build one new strategic system--the American MX and a similar Soviet missile. You can't blame the skeptics for thinking this was like arguing over what color to paint the coffins.

But hold on a minute--don't forget what the chancellor of Germany, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, said about scraps of paper at the outset of World War I. He was aghast, incredulous, horrified that Britain planned to fight solely because she'd solemnly promised the Belgiums--on paper-- she'd fight if anyone violated Belgian neutrality. "Just for a scrap of paper," protested Bethman-Hollweg in disbelief, "Great Britain is going to make war." Historians can cite 90 reasons why Britain went to war in 1914, but the reason the British gave at the time--the one thing that made looking the other way unthinkable--was that scrap of paper recording a British promise.

This is far from the standard evaluation of the role played by international treaties, but the experience of arms control tends to confirm it. A mighty effort is required to repudiate a treaty. The skeptics all say arms agreements have failed to make us safe. They are right. But they are wrong to suggest that arms-control agreements have been irrelevant.

Before 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union detonated hundreds of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Many different reasons were given for these tests. The two sides have detonated none since, for one reason only: They promised not to.

The weapon-builders have a ready fund of bright ideas for new hardware, but arms-control agreements--not strategy or money--are the biggest factors in deciding whether to go ahead. This was not always the case. Soviet and U.S. arsenals are curious grab bags. They include weapons of wildly different types, built for reasons hard to credit--like the MX, promised to the Air Force because the Navy got the last big system. Or the Trident D-5, built because we'd found ways to make submarine-launched missiles more accurate. Or the multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle--the infamous MIRV--funded by the Department of Defense in 1963 to mollify missile-designers unhappy about the Test Ban Treaty. Or the B-52 bomber, developed in the early 1950s mainly because the Air Force was then run by World War II bomber pilots who loved to fly.

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