Arms Control Lives Because We Kept SDI as Leverage

Colin S. Gray is president of the National Institute for Public Policy in Washington

The failure to agree at Reykjavik is not a failure for arms control. What happened at the summit was that the Soviets failed to kill the Strategic Defense Initiative as a serious weapons-development program. The cause of arms control has not been hurt by Reykjavik because the bargain that might have been struck would have been no bargain at all for Western security.

Arms-control negotiations are not a seminar on strategic theory; they are an exercise in competitive leverage. SDI is a source of enormous leverage for the West because it carries the prospect of posing an open-ended threat to the military utility of Soviet missile forces that Moscow knows, or suspects, it will be unable to counter effectively. It makes no sense for Western commentators to analyze the outcome of Reykjavik as though the subject were a technical exercise in negotiation between two essentially similar parties. The backdrop to Reykjavik is a Soviet Union that is politically at war with the West and seeking such military advantage as the domestic politics of the technologically superior democracies permit. A Soviet Union that is inferior to its external foes in all respects save ready military power is not interested in a military relationship of rough parity, whatever its leaders may say for consumption by gullible Westerners.

The Soviets are realists and can be trusted to negotiate and perform under agreements in ways that serve their strategic interests. They will agree to an arms-control regime that advances Western security interests as well as their own only if the alternative--a condition of legally unrestrained competition--promises plausibly to evolve to their disadvantage. As of today, it is plainly not self-evident to Mikhail S. Gorbachev that SDI will surmount all of its domestic U.S. obstacles to fulfillment, which is why failure to agree at Reykjavik was strategically acceptable.

Impatience is a perennial weakness of American political culture. It is a mistake to believe that SDI, a program that is 2 1/2 years old, can produce in the 1980s a negotiated vision of a thoroughly transformed strategic context. There is no way that Gorbachev is going to abandon his strategic offensive arsenal to fit the new American concept of a defense-dominated strategic world until he knows for certain that the United States will be able to enforce the dominance of defense through a maturing SDI.

The American proposals at Reykjavik, which amounted to provision of a framework for an orderly transition from offense-dominance to defense-dominance, may be negotiable with Moscow one day. But that negotiability will have to be earned through the achievement of technical progress on strategic defense, and--of course--the steady demonstration of political will to move to deployment of that defense.

In Soviet perspective the U.S. position probably appeared to be an attempt to enlist Moscow's political assistance for SDI. Since the Soviets are likely to face very major, and possibly unsolvable, problems in seeking to find technical or tactical solutions to the SDI, the last thing they are motivated to provide in 1986 is help in the one quarter where SDI is weak--the political.

What was the deal, the allegedly "grand compromise" that President Reagan declined in Reykjavik? Gorbachev offered a large-scale reduction in strategic offensive forces, up to 50%, as a major step toward achievement of the goal that he specified last January--total nuclear disarmament. So far so good, aside from the non-trivial subjects of verification and sustaining the incentive to see such a disarmament design through to completion. However, Gorbachev also has insisted that the ABM treaty, probably without formal revision, be strengthened in the restraints that it applies upon technology development. Specifically, missile defense technologies would be limited to development and testing in laboratories only.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Soviets suggested the Reykjavik meeting solely in order to wage political warfare against an SDI that already is suffering budgetary attrition from American politicians who do not understand its potential leverage for U.S. security.

Gorbachev's "grand design" of a world without nuclear weapons by the year 2000 is, as he knows, strategically impractical for the West on several grounds (including the implications for security in Europe). He knows that we know that the Soviet Union systematically, and with careful planning, cheats on agreements. Nuclear disarmament on a radical scale, let alone supposedly down to zero arsenals, must be accompanied by active defenses deployed as insurance against non-compliance. There is stability of a sort in diversity and large numbers of nuclear weapons. Should those ever be reduced drastically in number, strategic defense deployments would be mandatory.

In practice Gorbachev's Reykjavik offer, if accepted in its essentials, would have had the effect of killing SDI as a weapons program (as contrasted with a program of research in theoretical physics) and of scaling back offensive arsenals, but not to a level or in a way that would improve our security.

Reagan would have traded the only source of leverage for arms control worthy of the name in return for what?--a strategic nuclear competition fundamentally unchanged from those that have been obtained over the past several decades. If the years of our experience with the ABM treaty have taught us anything, it must be that the control of offensive arms cannot be pursued successfully in the absence of missile defenses.

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