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Arms talks: triple jeopardy

East-West dialogue is apparently lapsing into a state of triple jeopardy as the third set of negotiations - the mutual and balanced force reduction (MBFR) talks in Vienna - adjourns today without a resumption date having been set. This follows the breaks in the intermediate nuclear force (INF) and strategic arms reduction talks (START) in Geneva, as the Soviets dramatize their displeasure with the deployment of US Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe.

The Vienna talks themselves, between NATO and Warsaw Treaty nations over conventional force levels in Europe, do not carry the weight at the moment of the nuclear negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. As talks go, they've been rather turgid over the past 10 years. A year ago, the Atlantic alliance agreed to a Soviet-bloc demand that would make legally binding any reduction and limitation agreements that would reduce ground troops to 700, 000 on each side. Data on Warsaw Treaty organization forces and verification procedures remain stumbling blocks. The MBFR talks, a legacy of detente, have been defended as much as a way to maintain and expand East-West contacts as a way to contain or reduce troop levels.

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This third lapse in negotiations makes next January's conference in Stockholm , chiefly on confidence-building measures to reduce fear of nuclear attack, the only remaining East-West parley on the schedule. The Reagan administration, quite correctly, says it plans to use the Stockholm meeting as part of its overall approach to East-West dialogue. All NATO ministers will attend, Washington says, whether or not Mr. Gromyko shows up for the USSR.

Moscow no doubt called the shots on Vienna. A lapse there adds to the heightening of tension Moscow wants the West to feel over the NATO midrange missile go-ahead. Moscow seems to be rethinking its near-term relations with the US, Western Europe, China, indeed with most nations. Each set of negotiations is still handled on its own, but with a strong Soviet bias against what the Soviets see as a consistent Reagan pattern - using negotiations for rhetorical opportunism, lacking genuine interest in actual arms reduction. Not surprisingly , Washington says the same thing about Moscow.

The break in talks fits the natural hiatus of the year-end holidays.

And until Mr. Reagan makes an official announcement of his reelection candidacy, now scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 29, the Soviets cannot know for sure their chief adversary's political status through the ensuing months.

The Reagan administration argues that the Kremlin will have no choice but to return to the negotiating table next year. At the same time, however, the administration voices no urgency itself about reaching any arms accord during 1984.

Frankly, it's hard to see why the Soviets, from their point of view, would end their walkout before the US election runs its course. If they're going to have to deal with Mr. Reagan eventually anyway, should he be reelected, why make it any easier for him by resuming talks? The Soviets could decide to make him pay, politically, for the verbal drubbing he's given them.

Perhaps some rhetorical, not just nuclear, confidence-building measures should be on next month's Stockholm agenda. Otherwise, with the US election running, East-West relations next year could sag even lower.

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