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Jump-Starting East-West Talks

East-West negotiations have been reinvigorated by President Bush’s address at Texas A & M University on Friday and by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s initiatives in Moscow on Thursday. They alone cannot settle matters but their leadership is essential.

The most important development is the agreement, reached in Moscow by Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, to resume negotiations in mid-June on Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and nuclear testing.

Gorbachev’s reaffirmation of his wish to reduce conventional forces in Europe could serve to expedite the talks now under way in Vienna. The negotiators in Vienna already have before them a Soviet proposal to reduce the 2.2 million NATO troops in Western Europe and the 3.1 million Warsaw Pact troops in Eastern Europe to 1.3 million on each side.

But Gorbachev’s announcement of the unilateral elimination of 500 of the 10,000 short-range Soviet nuclear weapons in Europe, welcome as any reduction is, assures additional controversy at the May 29 NATO summit in Brussels. The allies are already sharply divided on whether to enter negotiations with Moscow on the short-range battlefield nuclear weapons now, as strongly advocated by West Germany, or to postpone the process until there is progress on the reduction of conventional forces, as preferred by the Bush Administration. The rigid rejection of the negotiations by the U.S. government is awkward at best, for many leading American arms-control experts favor the German proposal. It will be important, between now and the summit, to make clear that the United States will be bound by the decision of the allies.

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Gorbachev has demonstrated skill in maintaining the initiative on arms control, repeatedly taking Washington by surprise. In that context, Bush was correct in his address Friday to press Gorbachev for further tangible steps, including acceptance of open aerial surveillance of troop movements, free emigration and renunciation of the Brezhnev Doctrine that had asserted a Soviet right to intervene in Communist nations. Bush was also wise to recognize with new clarity the value of the social and economic changes taking place in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the American President’s address left the impression that his foreign policy is still being formed, a status that limits his ability to give vigorous leadership to the alliance, and a circumstance that inevitably makes it seem that Washington is always reacting to Moscow, not charting its own course.


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