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Arms control: what can be done before Salt II? Conservatives' opportunity

The two concepts of leverage and linkage dominate the Reagan administration's initial approach to strategic arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. The future of the SALT process is likely to hinge on how these two themes affect American policy toward the Soviets in the coming months.

The Reagan administration's conclusion that the US must build up strategic arms in order to negotiate arms control is based upon a partial and thus somewhat mistaken analysis of why the USSR was willing to conclude a SALT I treaty in 1972, precluding deployment of ballistic missile defenses by both sides.Imputing the success of SALT I for enhancing American security mainly to soviet alarm in the late 1960s over the more advanced US Safeguard/Sentinel antiballistic missile technology ignores the uniqueness of the circumstances of SALT I.

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A broad range of other pressures helped produce SALT I: economic constraints on both the US and USSR, the technical infeasibility of the defense of large areas against incoming missiles that both sides were contemplating, the symbolic role SALT I played as the centerpiece of the new detente relationship, and breakthroughs in development of the reconnaissance methods to verify compliance with the terms of the treaty.Lacking these pressures, an attempt to gain bargaining power over the Soviets today is more likely to produce arms competition than cooperation.

The Reagan administration has shown some impulse to begin arms talks with the Soviets. But the leverage appraoch probably means that some time will elapse before the US risks concrete negotiations, at least until the Reagan program to modernize the US central strategic arsenal is well underway.

President Reagan could punctuate this prospective hiatus with a dramatic, direct overture to the Soviet leaders to recast the SALT II agreement, or to begin new discusions. Comparing the achievements of Presidents Nixon and Carter underlines the greater flexibility with domestic constituencies that conservative American presidents seem to enjoy in dealing cooperatively with the USSR.

The chances of such a breakthrough in the near future are sharply reduced not just by the administration's avowed belief in linkage. Ever since SALT II was formally tied by then Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Frank Church to the status of a Soviet troop brigade in Cuba in the fall of 1979, arms negotiations and Soviet behavior elsewhere in the world have become inextricably intertwined in the American public and senatorial mind. Breaking that connections would require a dramatic Soviet act, demonstrating discontinuity from the pattern of foreign policy which has aroused American fears.

It is hard to conceive of a Soviet act or reorientation at present which would be both palatable for the Soviets and satisfying to the Reagan administration. Proposals made by President Leonid Brezhnev in his Feb. 23 speech to the 26th Soviet Communist Party Congress -- for an international agreement on Persian Gulf security, high-level US-Soviet consultations, and a moratorium on deployment of theater nuclear weapons in Europe --are regarded in Washington as slanted to Soviet advantage and calculated for rhetorical rather than real appeal. Since the Soviet leaders were unwilling to ransom SALT II in 1979 by changing the status of their brigade in Cuba, it is problematic how much beyond the Brezhnev offers they are now willing to go.

Even if along wait is in sight before serious strategic force negotiations resume, two avenues are open to the US and the USSR to stabilize the nuclear balance and avoid crises, both crucial goals of the SALT process. The strategic weapons programs of both sides are in some senses self-limiting, yielding to economic pressures and the need to select among competing defense needs. Each country can also choose in its modernization program to retire rather than retain older strategic systems, as new weapons are deployed. By eliminating its Titan II and Minuteman II ICBMs, older Polaris submarines and B-52 bombers, the US can encourage a more reliable and less redundant balance of forces.

The rapid pace of technological development, which has sometimes caused arms agreements to be built on quicksand, also provides opportunities for negotiating restraints on apparently peripheral issues when they are therefore politically possible. Note the agreements of the past two decases which have restricted nuclear weapons in outer space, on the seabed, or in Antarctica; or the limit on nuclear testing in the atmosphere which still allows underground experiments. These have too often been viewed as partial measures, irrevelant to the central problems of the strategic arms race.

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Yet, as demonstrated by a renewed debate today over the ballistic missile defenses though improbable in the late 1960s, yesterday's irrelevancy may be today's "sweet" technology or means of deploying weaponry. The existence of a formal agreement carries undeniable weight to forestall the avenues of nuclear weapons competition it restricts. At a time when central strategic negotiations are probably impossible and possibly undesirable, it will be increasingly important to identify whose areas in which technology threatening to destabilize the nuclear balance in the future coincides with n egotiability today.

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