AFTER the meeting between President Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Secretary of State George Shultz asked me to travel to Asia to report to our allies and friends in the region on what took place at that important event. After my discussions with Japanese leaders in Tokyo, I boarded a helicopter for a trip to the airport. Flying over that immense city, I thought of the millions of people living below. On that helicopter flight, the real purpose of arms control came through to me once again. It is to minimize the likelihood that nuclear weapons, which in milliseconds could reduce a splendid city like Tokyo (or New York or Leningrad) to cinders, will ever be used. Toward the end of our meetings in Iceland, we came close to agreeing to eliminate all ballistic missiles - weapons that can, in a number of minutes, wreak such havoc. During the two days we were in Reykjavik we made more progress toward reducing weapons of mass destruction than in any two years of my 15 years of negotiating with the Soviets.
After Reykjavik, the overwhelming majority of American people voiced their approval of President Reagan's decision not to let the Soviets scuttle our Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). They recognize that the President made a courageous and wise decision, one that is in the best interests of the United States and its allies. Many Americans share the President's unfailing commitment to SDI, and it is this commitment that brought the Soviets back to the negotiating table with an attitude we had long sought. In Iceland, General Secretary Gorbachev appeared to be responding to the US call for massive cuts in offensive ballistic missiles. President Reagan's vision of a safer world, in which defensive systems might play a much more important role, was brought closer to realization at Reykjavik.
Yet the journey is not complete. As Secretary Shultz made clear at his meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Vienna, there is still much to be done.
The Soviets continue to hold hostage progress in achieving significant reductions in offensive arms to their demand that the US restrict its strategic-defense research to the laboratory. This would effectively kill the program. Why the Soviets insist on such terms is no mystery.
First, they are extremely hesitant to enter into a technological race to see who could be the first to develop a defensive system. The Soviets understand that rapid movement of capital, brainpower, and skilled workers is much more easily accomplished in the US than in the USSR. They know it can lead to a more rapid application of new technological advances.
Second, the Soviets realize the importance of strategic defense. They want to move the US away from SDI despite the fact that they have been actively involved in their own strategic-defense program for the past 16 years. Obviously their leadership believes in the importance of strategic defense; otherwise they would not continue to expend enormous shares of their scarce capital for research and development of such systems.
A fair question one might ask is: If the Soviets believe in the viability of strategic defenses, why do they not want to deploy such systems? The obvious answer is that the Soviets enjoy an advantage in strategic defenses, and they do not want to see that advantage eroded.
Even if ballistic missiles were completely eliminated, we would still require strategic defenses. The secretive nature of Soviet society makes verification of Soviet compliance with arms control agreements difficult. Even if we were reasonably well satisfied that we could verify drastic reductions in or even elimination of their offensive systems, we would still be faced with a problem. Possible clandestine preparations would enable the Soviets to deploy offensive systems much more rapidly than we in a ``breakout'' situation. We might also need protection someday against some third-country ``madman'' who had secured the means to deliver nuclear weapons. These are reasons that we must work toward a strategic-defensive system. It is our only insurance policy for the future.
In Iceland, Mr. Reagan tried to break the deadlock created by Mr. Gorbachev's attempt to kill SDI by offering to eliminate all offensive ballistic missiles by 1996 and by promising to confine strategic-defense activities within the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty limits for the same 10-year period. Unfortunately, despite the President's efforts, the general secretary would not yield in his demands to in effect kill SDI. The Soviets showed no signs of softening this position in Vienna.
There is no reason, however, for us to be discouraged at this juncture. The Soviets have publicly agreed to significant cuts in strategic weapons. They would agree to reduce to 6,000 the number of ballistic missile warheads and long-range air-launched cruise missiles, and of heavy bombers carrying gravity bombs and short-range attack missiles. In the area of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), we are very close to a mutually acceptable formula for a global limit of 100 warheads on longer-range missiles for each side. Furthermore, INF missiles would be reduced in subsequent years to zero, as would ballistic missiles of all ranges, if the Soviets would accept the plan proposed by President Reagan. Finally, it is imperative that whatever we do about reducing nuclear weapons, we and our allies redouble our efforts to redress Soviet superiority in conventional forces. Otherwise, we may simply make the world safe for a conventional conflict, and that must not happen.
As we look beyond Reykjavik, we should continue to encourage the Soviets to capitalize on the momentum we achieved there, keeping in mind that we must resist any agreement with the Soviets that lacks strict and effective verification provisions. We must, above all, stand firm with President Reagan in our commitment to develop a viable strategic-defense system. The sooner the Soviet leadership takes advantage of the progress made in Iceland, the sooner we can move on to a safer and saner world.
Ambassador Edward L. Rowny is special adviser to the President and secretary of state on arms control.