The leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union are attempting to agree ona treaty to reduce our strategic nuclear arsenals by 50%. President Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev had hoped to sign such a treaty at the summit meeting in Moscow. But the negotiations reportedly were slowed by the friction of verification: How to be sure that the other side won't cheat once the treaty goes into effect.
There is a tight connection between arms control and trust. With strong mutual trust, it is easier to agree on arms limitations. But the connection can be extended: If both sides reduced their threatening arsenals of nuclear weapons, it would help to establish mutual trust. Agreements to limit nuclear weapons depend on some level of mutual trust, but a mutual reduction of nuclear stockpiles could create trust, making it easier to go to the next step, and so forth. Unfortunately, it also works in reverse: The lower the level of trust, the harder it is to reach any kind of an agreement.
Concerns about verification doomed the second strategic-arms-limitation treaty in the U.S. Senate during the 1970s. These concerns came to predominate in the atmosphere of mistrust after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Similar concerns delayed the ratification of the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces to just before the Moscow summit meeting, and they continue to slow the preparation of a strategic-arms-reduction, or START, agreement.
We propose that we break out of this cycle by first improving the atmosphere of trust. Recall that the START goal is a "reduction of nuclear weapons by 50%." But it won't be quite that. Estimates are that the American arsenal will be reduced from the present level of about 12,000 warheads to about 9,000, and similarly for the Soviets. Hardly a 50% reduction. But even these reductions may never come to pass as we argue about the fine print of verification.
It is time to exercise what has been referred to as unilateral common sense. Instead of miring ourselves in the bog of mutual mistrust, let us by ourselves take a first step toward reduction that requires no verification procedures.
Most experts on both sides agree that an arsenal of 500 to 1,000 invulnerable nuclear weapons is more than enough to deter a nuclear attack. The present arsenals exceed this number by an enormous factor.
So let us begin by imagining President Reagan announcing that the United States, starting on Aug. 6 (Hiroshima Day), will begin dismantling two (or three) nuclear weapons a week. The process would be open to observation by Soviet officials and, through television and the press, to the rest of the world. After one year, about 1% of our arsenal would have been destroyed. Since we could start with our oldest and least efficient weapons, no measurable reduction in military strength would have taken place. At this stage we would have a purely symbolic action. What happened next would depend on the response by the Soviet Union.
If the Soviets did nothing, we could stop our dismantling program. If, on the other hand, they should decide to match our effort, then the purely symbolic gesture might become substantive. The open dismantling of weapons by both sides could continue while the task of formal negotiations to achieve major reductions in our nuclear arsenals could begin in earnest.
The value of the unilateral initiative would be to decrease the measure of mutual distrust. But this is just what might make it easier to proceed to the next step, which would be negotiated treaties of the kind that we now find so hard to agree on. They would include steps requiring real verification, like stopping the production of nuclear materials and warheads to ensure that the destroyed weapons were not being replaced through the production of newer models. Other measures that would require negotiated verification procedures include a complete ban on underground nuclear tests and a limitation of long-range nuclear cruise missiles.
If the initiative for the first step came from the United States, it would go a long way toward portraying us internationally as we want to be seen: a country committed to peace with common security for all. At no cost to our own national security, we could capture the world's imagination (what a show those first dismantlings could be!) and demonstrate our willingness to step away from the ultimate weapon. This might make it easier to stem the further proliferation of nuclear weapons among other countries. Most important, it would demonstrate to the rest of the world that we are ready to shift our attention to the real problems of the globe: securing economic stability and technological progress while combatting hunger and disease, environmental degradation and the dangerous imbalance of wealth and poverty among the nations of the world.