• U.S.

Breakthrough or Breakout?

6 minute read
Strobe Talbott

The new year in Soviet-American arms control officially begins in Geneva this week. For the first time since last November, Chief U.S. Negotiator Max Kampelman is due to lead his delegation of diplomats and experts in a caravan of limousines from their headquarters across from the city’s botanical gardens, up the Avenue de la Paix, through a heavy iron gate, past a phalanx of Soviet sentries and onto the grounds of the Villa Rose, which houses the Soviet mission. Kampelman will be met by his counterpart, Victor Karpov. Inside a modernistic annex to the baroque mansion, the two delegations will take their places at a long table, with Kampelman flanked by two colleagues on the U.S. team, former Texas Senator John Tower and Diplomat Maynard Glitman. After an exchange of pleasantries, the negotiators will plunge into the tedious yet vital business of seeking reductions in Intercontinental and intermediate-range nuclear arms, as well as establishing ground rules for the development of exotic antimissile devices such as those proposed in Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, plan.

Despite differences on many issues, the outlines of a potential agreement have been apparent for some time. Its centerpiece would be an “offense-defense trade-off”: the Soviet Union would accept deep cuts in its most accurate, powerful offensive weapons–land-based ballistic-missile warheads–in exchange for the U.S.’s restricting SDI.

The Soviets are interested in such a trade since extensive American defenses would force them to invest in expensive countermeasures at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev wants to build up the industrial and civilian sectors of the economy. Karpov laid down a proposal in Geneva last fall under which the Soviet Union would give up half of its land-based warheads if the U.S. canceled SDI. There have been some high-level hints that the Soviet definition of cancellation would be a ban on testing and deployment but not on the research phase of the program.

Some American experts believe that the offense-defense trade-off would be a good deal: if the U.S. were less threatened by Soviet offenses, it would have less need for a massive network of orbiting battle stations to shield it from an attack. Many scientists question whether SDI will work, and the research necessary to find out is dauntingly expensive. The Administration wants $26 billion over the next five years, and deployment might cost a cool trillion or more. Especially in an era of deficit reduction and Pentagon cost cutting, there is growing resistance in Congress to funding SDI. Says New York’s Democratic Senator Daniel Moynihan: “Our leverage over the Russians with this program is considerable until that day when they figure out that they can sit back and wait for us to pull the plug on it. It is a great bargaining chip until it becomes a great white elephant.”

To date, Reagan has shown no inclination to bargain away SDI to accept any limits on it. At their summit in November, Reagan tried in vain to convince Gorbachev that large-scale strategic defenses were in the interests of world peace; Gorbachev tried just as unsuccessfully to interest Reagan in an offense-defense trade-off. Because of the President’s very personal–and at the same time very public–commitment to the dream that someday space-based defenses might render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete,” it is politically dangerous for any member of his Administration to advocate compromise.

Still, some members of the Administration are hoping that Reagan will eventually go for a deal. He is due to meet Gorbachev at a follow-up summit in the U.S. later this year. This time around, such a meeting cannot be a success unless there is concrete progress in arms control, and progress will almost certainly depend on some give in the U.S. position. Reagan may decide, or be convinced by his more moderate aides, that restricting SDI to research does not mean killing the program or giving up the hope that what is discovered in the lab may someday free mankind from the nuclear threat.

Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger predicts that even if Reagan decided to go for a trade-off, he would have difficulty with his conservative constituency: “The President’s big dilemma is that after the 1984 election, he legitimized SDI as a symbol of the true faith. He has jettisoned five years of rhetoric about the Evil Empire; he has restored a climate of détente. But the right wing still regarded the summit as a triumph. Why? Because he didn’t give away SDI. That means if he moves to trade it away in the next year or so, he’ll have an uprising on his hands.”

Another former Pentagon official, William Perry, who was in charge of military research during the Carter Administration, is concerned about what will happen if the Soviets decide that Reagan is irrevocably committed to SDI. Perry is concerned that if the U.S. uses the space shuttle to carry out a demonstration of a laser weapon in the next year, “we may have pushed ourselves beyond a point of no return with the Soviets so that they’ll start acting as though we have such a system. Instead of concentrating on diplomacy, they’ll pull out the stops in their military programs to counter the defenses they will expect us to have.”

The Kremlin is poised to do precisely that on short notice, but it is holding itself in check under the agreements reached during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of the ’70s. Even though SALT II of 1979 was never formally ratified, and expired last month, the two sides have agreed to observe its terms while Kampelman and Karpov try to come up with a new accord in Geneva. However, that open-ended arrangement is in jeopardy. American hawks, including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, accuse the Soviets of violating SALT II; in a private report to the President that was leaked last week, Weinberger urged that the U.S. respond with its own selective violations, including not dismantling missile-carrying Poseidon submarines as a newer Trident sub is put into service.

The trouble is, the Soviets have far more new strategic nuclear weapons under development or ready for deployment than the U.S.; instead of cutting in half their arsenal of land-based missile warheads, as they have offered to do in exchange for concessions on SDI, they could double the number by exercising their option of breakout from the constraints of SALT II. That fact gives Gorbachev considerable leverage of his own over Reagan. In addition, it means that Kampelman and Karpov are beginning a potentially critical round of talks: 1986 could be the make-or-break year for arms control. –By Strobe Talbott

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