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Just Coasting

The only people who have anything to show for the Geneva arms-control talks so far are Swiss caterers and others who get paid for pampering the swarms of Soviet and American negotiators.

The most visible results are exchanges of insults, the latest coming last week when Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev accused the United States of marking time in Geneva, and Washington accused him of hypocrisy.

Gorbachev may well be a hypocrite, but a senior Pentagon official recently said of the Geneva talks that “we are in a coasting mode.” That is one way senior officials say that they are marking time, and he did not seem at all glum about the situation.

It may well be that Soviet officials talk the same way in private, that they are perfectly happy to run out the clock while Gorbachev tends to domestic problems that he considers more urgent. The way to find out is to test them.

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As long as either side is happy to drift along at Geneva, waiting to see whether anything turns up, the caterers will get rich and retire and there still will be no new arms-control treaty. As long as Washington coasts, the Soviets will use the stalemate at Geneva to argue that the nuclear threat to Europe is growing when it could be shrinking if the United States would only get down to business. The longer that goes on, the greater will be the strains on U.S. relations with Europe. The monumental irony of all that is that this country got heavily into nuclear arms in the first place in order to pose a credible threat of retaliation with missiles if the Soviets ever invaded Europe.

To get down to business, muffle the Soviet propaganda campaign and make headway on arms control, the United States must do two things. The first is to turn down the spotlight on Geneva. The real work in arms control has always been done off in a corner or walking in the woods.

Then--as Henry A. Kissinger, former secretary of state, suggested recently--it can send an American with long experience in arms control to Moscow or neutral territory to talk quietly with a Soviet of similar background about what combinations of weapons systems both superpowers think they can live with.

As things now stand in Geneva, even if there were serious negotiations, both sides would simply be mentioning numbers of missiles without an agreed context in which to fit those numbers.

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Such meetings--out of sight, out of mind--would be ideal forums to explore new approaches to ending, or at least slowing, the arms race. One such approach--mutual restraint--is already being tested in the House of Representatives, where Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Riverside) and 228 of his colleagues last week voted to prohibit further testing of American satellite killers unless and until the Soviets resume tests of their own.

They also would allow President Reagan to link restrictions on defensive systems with those on offensive missiles--something that he refuses to do publicly, having said that his “Star Wars” concept of a shield that he hopes would make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” is not negotiable.

Reagan, alone, still talks that way. His own experts are concentrating their research on nothing more than limited defenses for American missiles, not for cities--systems that can and should be discussed along with proposals for cuts in stockpiles of intercontinental weapons. And the longer he keeps defensive systems out of arms-control negotiations, the closer he gets to the worst possible outcome. Even limited moves on defense systems in the United States would provoke the Soviets into building more big missiles to overwhelm the defenses.

In the coasting mode, all that Geneva can produce is thinner ties to Europe, fatter Swiss caterers and an accelerated production schedule for the very weapons that negotiations are supposed to control.

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