President Reagan has sent his arms-control negotiators to Geneva with instructions that amount to sending a chess champion into a match with one or more chess piece than the rules allow. The piece is "Star Wars"--the Strategic Defense Initiative. But it is still in a box, so nobody knows whether it is as powerful as a second queen or as expendable as a ninth pawn. But either it remains a part of the game or, so the President seems to be saying, the match is off.
This assures that for some time to come Geneva will be a psychological war, not a negotiation. It is better to have the United States and the soviet Union talking over each other's heads than shooting over each other's heads. But real arms-control talks are even more to be desired.
For now, Moscow tries to persuade the world that weapons in space would make the nuclear world more dangerous, and Washington gets it allies behind an argument that a little research can't hurt. The more fundamental question of whether it makes sense, no matter who is making the argument, to put new weapons into space before you have even begun to get control of weapons on Earth gets pushed into a corner in the war of nerves.
It looks much different to engineers and physicists working in their laboratories, and to military leaders whose mission is to keep antagonists from getting a jump on them.
U.S. and Soviet scientists talk to one another constantly. They have gone over the Star Wars concept with a magnifying glass and fingerprint powder, and large majorities on both sides agree that natural laws of physics that cannot be rewritten make a key element of Star Wars impossible.
But U.S. military leaders talk as though Star Wars is possible, perhaps out of courtesy to their commander-in-chief. Soviet military leaders are likely to put more stock in what their U.S. counterparts say than in what Soviet scientists tell them.
It is at this point that the real world takes over. As long as the Star Wars program is treated by the Pentagon as a research program that could well lead to real space weapons, the Soviet military will have the edge over scientists in discussions with its government leaders. Mikhail S. Gorbachev, mere hours in his new position of leadership, is not likely to tell his generals not to worry, that it is only a little research program.
One Geneva dilemma is that no workable formula, including on-site inspections, exists for verifying a country's claim that it is not pursuing research on a new weapon. The Soviets talk less about it than the United States does, but they, too, are working on various components of their own version of Star Wars.
The Soviets could punch holes in a defense system by changing the propulsion systems of their missiles and by building more of them. Changes like that require long lead times--years of research and then deployment.
If the United State continues to insist that its extra chess piece is not negotiable, those long-range plans for adding to the Soviet arsenal must be put into motion soon. The instinct to plan to respond is not cured by saying, as the United States does, that it will return to the bargaining table in a few years if it figures out how to make Star Wars work, and that it will tell the Soviet Union before it puts such weapons into space.
Under the circumstances, it would well be that the very negotiations on which the world pins such hopes could be the impetus for a new round of nuclear buildup. At a minimum it could lead the Soviets to resist U.S. arguments that they should reduce their existing stockpile of missiles. Such paradoxes have plagued earlier attempts at arms control. But, as Reagan said recently, the world does not have many more chances to get arms control right.