The emphasis on counting warheads at last week's Washington summit meeting almost, but not quite, obscured its real meaning. The important decision, implicit if not explicit, was that the United States and the Soviet Union will try at least for now to fight out their differences with words--not weapons. The goal will be political rather than nuclear superiority on a global scale. As the summit ended, President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev had clearly turned toward the kind of political, economic and ideological competition into which some of the world's most astute analysts had been trying to nudge them for a long time.
The roots of a change in the nature of their competition were planted nearly 20 years ago when a White House task force took a hard look at the nuclear age and concluded that the United States could not sustain "meaningful" superiority over the Soviet Union in nuclear weapons. It recommended settling for what then was called "sufficiency," and the first arms-control treaty, SALT I, was signed a few years later.
Not everyone agreed with the assessment. Over the years the Soviet Union did enough reckless things--invading Afghanistan, building up a force of nuclear weapons heavy enough to threaten this nation's existence, messing around in the Third World--to give defense hard-liners credibility. The result was a $1-trillion American defense buildup and talk of actually fighting a nuclear war instead of using nuclear weapons to make certain that one never occurred.
But the old White House assessment stood the test of time. Neither country could get the nuclear upper hand. Analysts continued to provide glimpses of a future in which just one of the thousands of warheads might get loose without anyone's intending it to. A sentence from a paper by Theodore Postol of Stanford University, for example, is no less chilling for its matter-of-fact science. "During the period of peak energy output," he wrote, "a 1-megaton nuclear weapon can produce temperatures of about 100 million degrees Celsius at its center, about four to five times that which occurs at the center of the sun."
Turning toward a competition in which ideas can be more potent than armies is different from actually getting there. The President still must cope with hard-liners among military strategists who insist that there is no such thing as enough weapons to guarantee the good intentions of a Soviet leader. Many human-rights activists felt betrayed by the cursory treatment of their cause in the communique of the summit meeting. Gorbachev may have trouble with his own hard-liners over his willingness to start thinking of deep reductions in intercontinental missiles without any agreement from the United States to put the brakes on "Star Wars."
The cultural and ideological barriers that separate the two nations are steep and treacherous. For sad proof, you see Moscow officials shutting down a public hall for "disinfection" so that human-rights activists could not hold a meeting there. Choosing words over weapons is something that the President and the general secretary may not be able to sustain. But clearly they were compelled at least to try by the fact that the alternative cannot be sustained, either.