Soviets Aren't Always the Bad Guys at Negotiations

Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer

Millions of words are published every year about negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet most of us have only the haziest notion of how such negotiations are actually organized and carried out.

Now that both President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev at last show signs of serious intent at the arms-reduction talks in Geneva, it is especially interesting to hear what people with direct experience in U.S.-Soviet negotiations have to say about the process.

Conferences on the subject have been held in recent weeks by Harvard's Russian Research Center and by the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.

What came through at the Harvard meeting was that business people who have negotiated contracts with the Soviets frequently have had easier, less frustrating experiences than diplomats involved in arms-control talks.

Interestingly enough, however, former negotiators who participated in the IGCC conference at Santa Barbara last week were pretty well agreed that the frustrations in arms-control negotiations are not all generated by intransigence or stonewalling on the Soviet side. Some suggested, in fact, that negotiating with the Soviets can be duck soup for a diplomat compared to dealing with his own government.

Prof. Herbert York of UC San Diego, one-time chief of research and development at the Pentagon who conducted nuclear-test-ban negotiations during the Carter Administration, described how the very nature of our democracy complicates the task of negotiating with the Soviets.

"Bilateral U.S.-Soviet negotiations," he said, "are always preceded and accompanied by negotiations among the interested agencies in Washington." In his experience these "internal negotiations" can get more heated than those with the other side.

Every U.S. President must reckon with the reality that a treaty, once negotiated, must be approved by the Senate, where all it takes is one-third plus one of the membership to block ratification. Since there will always be at least 34 senators who would not vote to ratify any arms-control treaty unacceptable to the Pentagon, this means that the Defense Department must be brought into the process of framing the U.S. negotiating position.

Despite a lot of folklore to the contrary, uniformed U.S. military leaders do not automatically oppose arms-control agreements; they recognize the value of regulating or eliminating some areas of arms competition in order to avoid squandering money that could be better spent for other defense purposes.

However, military professionals, diplomats, theorists in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, influential senators and Presidents inevitably have different perspectives. So there is always the danger that by the time a negotiating position is worked out that is tolerable to the various constituencies in Washington, it won't be negotiable with the Soviets.

In any event, once the negotiations get under way the chief U.S. negotiator is accompanied by a small army of advisers and observers from other agencies--including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the office of the defense secretary, the arms-control agency and, in the case of nuclear-arms talks, the national laboratories. Their role is to provide technical expertise and to keep their bosses in Washington informed.

As one former participant commented, "Even if a negotiator was inclined to give away the store, as critics sometimes allege, he couldn't because too many people are looking over his shoulder."

U.S. negotiators operate under a very tight leash from Washington anyway.

Typically, when one side or the other presents a proposal at a formal session, the other side listens politely, then says that it will take it under advisement--which means consulting both within the delegation and with Washington or Moscow.

Informal meetings occur, social and otherwise, at which members from the opposing delegations try to gain insights into what the other side is really thinking. But the negotiating authority of the U.S. delegation is tightly defined--and that of the Soviet delegation presumably more so. The Americans are not ordinarily allowed to sound out the Soviets on an alternative approach--"If we agree to this, would you agree to that?"--without advance approval from Washington.

One participant said that negotiating with the Soviets is not all that different from negotiating with non-communist countries. In fact, he said, "I found negotiating with the French much harder." Many others who have negotiated with the Soviets disagree, to say the least.

Usually the United States presents detailed initial proposals, to which the Soviets then react. This may be, as many believe, a Soviet negotiating technique aimed at wringing concessions from the American side. But it probably reflects also the peculiarities of bureaucratic politics within the Soviet power structure.

The Soviets try to keep final treaty language as unspecific as possible in order to preserve a maximum degree of flexibility in interpretation. This is unfortunate, as the current controversy over alleged Soviet non-compliance demonstrates, because flexible interpretations are apt to look like violations to the other side.

In fact, the most important thing to realize about negotiations, in the opinion of diplomats, is that you can't expect the other side to accept an agreement that is not in its interest.

We and the Soviets have wildly different views of the world and their appropriate role in it. Our national interests are in many respects contradictory. A competitive relationship is unavoidable. But there is also common ground, which in this case is recognition that an uncontrolled nuclear-arms race is not in the interest of either side. The job of intelligent diplomacy is to find and build on areas of common interest. Trying to swindle the other side into a lopsided agreement is counterproductive in the long run.

Moscow doesn't always seem to approach negotiations with this in mind. But neither, it must be said, does Washington.

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