The emphasis on counting warheads at last week's Washington summit meeting almost, but not quite, obscured its real meaning. The important decision, implicit if not explicit, was that the United States and the Soviet Union will try at least for now to fight out their differences with words--not weapons. The goal will be political rather than nuclear superiority on a global scale. As the summit ended, President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev had clearly turned toward the kind of political, economic and ideological competition into which some of the world's most astute analysts had been trying to nudge them for a long time.
The roots of a change in the nature of their competition were planted nearly 20 years ago when a White House task force took a hard look at the nuclear age and concluded that the United States could not sustain "meaningful" superiority over the Soviet Union in nuclear weapons. It recommended settling for what then was called "sufficiency," and the first arms-control treaty, SALT I, was signed a few years later.
Not everyone agreed with the assessment. Over the years the Soviet Union did enough reckless things--invading Afghanistan, building up a force of nuclear weapons heavy enough to threaten this nation's existence, messing around in the Third World--to give defense hard-liners credibility. The result was a $1-trillion American defense buildup and talk of actually fighting a nuclear war instead of using nuclear weapons to make certain that one never occurred.