The United States and the Soviet Union launch a new beginning here Tuesday in the permanent search for nuclear understanding, but the arms race may already now be passing a point of no return beyond which neither side will any longer have the political will or readiness to agree on new limits or controls.
In the six years since the last arms control agreement was signed in Vienna by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Leonid I. Brezhnev--the ill-starred SALT II treaty--both sides have deployed new nuclear weapons and are well down the road toward development of yet another generation of both medium-range and strategic missiles.
In the 15 months since the Soviets broke off the last round of Geneva talks, President Reagan has launched his new Strategic Defense Initiative, to develop, test and prepare to deploy an anti-missile defense system in space.
Whatever the ultimate viability of this "Star Wars" program--and neither its scientific practicality nor its military and political wisdom are guaranteed--it has disrupted the chessboard in Geneva and changed the game.
"Star Wars" represents a strategic reversal on the part of the United States. When arms control discussions first got under way in the late 1960s, it was the United States that had to persuade the Soviets to give up, or at least limit, defensive weapons systems, which the American side regarded as dangerous. Now, as these talks begin, the Americans are suddenly singing the virtues of defensive weapons.
The Reagan Administration prides itself on "Star Wars," saying that the Soviets are back at the negotiating table largely because of the research program. But the Soviets contend that the "Star Wars" program makes future agreements impossible and that no reductions or new limits on offensive weapons of any kind can even be considered if the United States pushes into space.
The Geneva talks, therefore, seem certain to revolve for many months around a debate about nuclear theories rather than nuclear practicalities. The emphasis will be on the wisdom of relying in the future on defensive weapons systems instead of offensive retaliation to maintain deterrence and nuclear balance. It is going to take a long, long time simply to find out if there is anything that the two sides might even agree about.
After that, the negotiators might then be able to get down to the nuts and bolts of trade-offs, of cuts or limits in numbers of missiles on each side and the inevitable problem of verification and control.
But all this is so far in the future that even Reagan's inexhaustible optimism fades at the prospect. Although he has declared that an effective missile defense along the lines of "Star Wars" will eventually render nuclear weapons obsolete, he has acknowledged that there may not be any agreement at all while he is in the White House.
The Soviets may well feel the same. They know perfectly well that the "Star Wars" program is no certainty. They can read in the current issue of Foreign Affairs the words of the well-informed four leading critics of the program, former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, former Ambassador to the Soviet Union George F. Kennan, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and arms negotiator Gerard C. Smith, all of whom the Soviets have known and dealt with.
"What is centrally and fundamentally wrong with the President's objective is that it cannot be achieved," the four contend. "The overwhelming consensus of the nation's technical community is that, in fact, there is no prospect whatever that science and technology can at any time in the next several decades make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. The notion is an illusion, and a complete misreading of the relation between threat and response in the nuclear decisions of the superpowers. False hope, however strong and understandable, is a bad guide to action."
"Star Wars" is so controversial and so vastly expensive that the Soviets may well conclude that their best tactic in Geneva is simply to go on talking and wait and see what happens after the 1988 U.S. presidential election.
In the meantime, Col. Gen. Nikolai F. Chervov of the Soviet general staff was declaring quite predictably in Washington last week: "To put it mildly, not one of your arguments (for "Star Wars") can stand up to criticism. But we are not going to sit on our hands and wait until you decide to deploy. You develop one system, we are going to develop another system to counter it."
And so, whatever the pros and cons of the "Star Wars" argument, it inevitably is already turning the ratchet upward by a good many notches in the nuclear arms race.
Meanwhile, the international lobbying over "Star Wars" has been intense on both sides. President Reagan has not surprisingly won the outspoken support of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, along with somewhat more pro forma endorsements from West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi. But all these statements of support have been limited to research and testing only.
The French, on the other hand, make no bones about the fact that they think that the program is simply fouling up any chances for a superpower arms agreement and for that reason they are against it.
Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko has been out preaching the iniquities of "Star Wars" to Pope John Paul II in Rome, to the Italian government, to Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales in Madrid and to West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who made a lightning visit last week to Moscow.
After six years without any understanding or advance in the nuclear arms control field, with new weapons systems multiplying and the political attitudes on both sides turning into the equivalent of those hardened missile silos in Montana and Siberia, the prospects for any agreement in Geneva have been reduced almost to invisibility.
From Megaphone to Table
The most promising aspect of the new beginning, therefore, may simply be the fact that talks will once again be taking place at all. The long-distance exchanges of "megaphone diplomacy" between Moscow and Washington are finally being transferred to the conference table. The rest of the world, accordingly, may breathe a little easier.
The Geneva negotiations really have to be seen as an essential element in the management of superpower relations. The nuclear question is the focal point at which the security interests of the United States and the Soviet Union directly coincide and dangerously collide. The process of arms talks can therefore be interrupted or abandoned only at an unacceptable diplomatic and political risk on both sides.
There are those in Washington who brush aside the idea of "talks for the sake of talks," largely on the grounds that no agreement with the Soviet Union has ever been worth the paper it is written on, and talking is in the end a snare and a delusion. Says Richard N. Perle, the hard-line assistant secretary of defense:
"The idea that we and the Russians could compose our differences, reduce them to treaty constraints, enter into agreements and treaties reflecting a set of constraints and then rely on compliance to produce a safer world--I do not agree with any of that."
But the new American chief negotiator in Geneva, Max M. Kampelman, takes a more practical if not sanguine view of the importance of the process. Most recently, Kampelman spent three years talking with, to, around, past and over the Soviets in the interminable conference to review the Helsinki Agreements on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has been asked repeatedly ever since if all the talk was worth such meager results, which the Soviets ignore anyway. In a recent interview, Kampelman said:
"We must be prepared to confront their challenges at every level: at the level of military preparedness, propaganda, diplomacy, social and economic programs, political warfare and at the level of the search for peace. I don't want to abdicate any of these competitive fields to the Soviets.
"Let us say openly that we are prepared to be confrontational if that is necessary to advance our values and interests and our faith in maintaining peace through containment and deterrence. We must also see to it that we identify ourselves with the aspirations of the general public in the Western world for peace and security. People want and expect civilized diplomacy and realistic negotiations. We have the difficult task of making sure that such diplomacy is not identified with capitulation--a delicate task because negotiation means give and take. But we can take comfort from the fact that in certain East-West agreements in the past, we have taken a great deal more than we have given."
So there is a readiness to talk--but is there a will to agree? The answer to that question lies not in Geneva but in Washington and Moscow, and it is not likely to be clear for several years at least.