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An Icelandic Saga

The Geneva summit of November 1985, held after months of preparation, turned out to be an exercise in deliberate ambiguity.1 The improvised meeting of Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik resulted in unprecedented confusion. It took more than a week to dig out what actually happened from under the public relations rubble accumulated by American officials, who moved, with breath-taking speed and an eye on the electorate, from unwarranted despair to unjustified optimism.

What happened in Iceland is a textbook case of careful planning on one side while the other side was taken by surprise and lost both initiative and perspective. The Geneva summit had reached a dead-lock over SDI. The Soviets had linked reductions on strategic nuclear weapons to American willingness to curtail SDI. On these issues, no progress was made in subsequent arms control negotiations. When Gorbachev, in the middle of the crisis over the arrest of Nicholas Daniloff, offered to meet the President in Iceland, the Americans decided that he probably wanted to clinch an agreement on the intermediate nuclear forces in Europe, a subject that the Soviets had untied from SDI and over which much progress had been achieved in negotiations in Geneva during 1986. A limited deal on reducing the scope of nuclear tests also seemed possible. However, in Reykjavik Gorbachev came back to what had been his strategy in Geneva: trading reductions on offensive weapons for sharp limits on SDI. And he tied both an agreement on intermediate forces and a deal on weapons testing to this trade. But he made such a package far more attractive than he did eleven months ago, by offering more detailed and in some cases bigger reductions than before.

The American team was taken by surprise because it had misinterpreted Gorbachev’s game. They thought he needed the guarantee of even a limited success before agreeing to come to Washington. But to him Reykjavik was simply Act II in a patient, long-term strategy aimed at eroding SDI in exchange for deep reductions. His concern is with the central front, so to speak, not with the sideshows. In Geneva, and in the negotiations that followed, Soviet offers had failed to produce concessions from Reagan on SDI, yet Reagan’s desire for an arms control success, and his dream of moving toward a nonnuclear world, clearly clashed with his drive for an uninhibited SDI. For Gorbachev, Reykjavik was a safe gamble. Aimed at smoking out Reagan, the Soviet plan would either lead to a breakthrough if Reagan finally accepted the deal, or make Reagan appear as an obstinate spoiler, and thus concentrate the world’s attention on SDI if he didn’t.

If this was a trap, as right-wing commentators put it, the best tactic for the American delegation would have been to refuse to fall into it and to move the meeting back to subjects of possible agreement, the only ones for which the Americans were prepared. A Soviet refusal would have put the onus for failure on Moscow. Instead, the meeting turned into an extravagant marathon in which Reagan’s advisers went, in two days, much farther than during all the previous months, and the two chiefs found themselves lifted from the harsh realities and complexities of nuclear negotiations to competitive visions of utopia. The only concrete and definitive outcome such a magic carpet ride could have had would have been the sketch of a deal on offensive weapons and SDI. But that would have required, after Reykjavik, a far more detailed set of understandings than the two leaders could ever have drafted in two days.

The behavior of the American team, both at Reykjavik and after, vindicated Henry Kissinger’s belief that affairs of state are too serious to be left to chiefs of government at summit meetings. On leaving Reykjavik, the American negotiators appeared, at first, deeply depressed, because they had hoped to come away from Iceland with some deals and had let themselves be tantalized by all the sweeping reductions the Soviets had dangled in front of them. They switched to equally excessive euphoria when, for reasons of image making and electoral politics, they chose to stress the magnitude of what had “almost” been accomplished, and exaggerated this quite a bit.

What was actually accomplished can be divided into two parts: the promise of a somewhat better nuclear world, and the delusion of a world beyond nuclear weapons. Concerning the former, it is now clear that what is within reach is (1) an agreement on intermediate nuclear forces, which would eliminate them in Europe and sharply reduce the number of Soviet SS-20s in Asia; (2) an agreement on reductions in strategic offensive weapons between 1986 and 1991, although the hyperbolic estimate of cuts amounting to 50 percent of such weapons ought to be resisted: the cuts in warheads and in launchers that were discussed do not amount to 50 percent, and some important issues, such as the scope of reductions affecting Soviet heavy land-based missiles—the missiles the US fears most—and sea-launched cruise missiles, were left vague; (3) an agreement on tests, short of a comprehensive ban.

This is not negligible. It is true that purely quantitative reductions do not remove the factors of instability and the incentives for preventive attack that the developments of the past fifteen years—including the multiplication of accurate, vulnerable, and unverifiable weapons, and the flaws of command and control systems—have created. Nevertheless, reductions in weapons that cannot be used without disastrous consequence, and are in any case far too numerous to find “suitable” targets, are obviously desirable; and an agreement on reducing their numbers would also improve the political relations between the great powers.

However, even this road remains strewn with obstacles. The deal on intermediate forces discussed in Iceland goes beyond the mere reduction of SS-20s and American intermediate missiles to one hundred warheads on each side that had been envisaged before: it goes back to the famous “zero option” the Reagan administration had offered in 1981 in the firm belief that the Soviets would reject it. Those European leaders and NATO officials who had, at that time, argued for American deployment of intermediate missiles in Europe because their presence there would mean that Western Europe’s security was clearly “coupled” to that of America, are beginning to complain that the removal of these weapons is a “decoupling” step, even if the SS-20s disappear and short-range weapons aimed at Western Europe are kept at current numbers. For Western Europe would still be exposed both to these weapons and to Soviet long-range strategic missiles, notwithstanding the presence of the NATO submarine fleet.

As for the complete package of agreements, it still depends on a resolution of the issue of SDI. Many observers have argued that a deal is possible, in the form of an interim agreement that would commit the US to the observance, for ten years, of the ABM treaty of 1972, i.e., to discarding the broad and self-serving interpretation of the treaty the Reagan administration developed in 1985. (Under this interpretation, ABM systems based on “other physical principles” than those that existed in 1972, for instance spacebased lasers, are not prohibited by the treaty.) An interim agreement would also define with some precision such controversial terms as “components” of defensive systems (a term used in the ABM treaty) or “elements” of such systems (a term used in Gorbachev’s draft proposals) or “laboratory research and testing.” Such an interim agreement would also prevent the kinds of tests and deployments allowed by the ABM treaty—those of antitactical missile defenses and antisatellite weapons—from being used for the development of SDI.

Contrary to early reports, a compromise along these lines was not at all ruled out by Gorbachev’s formula for an agreement on SDI at Reykjavik. Nor would such a compromise have obliged Reagan to give up either his dream of perfect defenses, or his more recent notion of defenses deployed as insurance against Soviet cheating, or accidents, or third nuclear powers. Few experts believe either that SDI could be deployed effectively during the next ten years, or that the kind of restrictions an interim agreement would entail would be fatal to research on SDI.

But Reagan may well fear that if such restrictions persist, SDI would never go beyond the research stage, given the extraordinary technological complexities of the program, its astronomical price tag, and the magnitude of the counter-measures Moscow might take. (Kissinger has written that even the very loose moratorium Reagan had offered to Moscow would lead to the abandonment of SDI.)2 Moreover, Gorbachev also demanded that, at the end of the interim agreement, further moves, i.e., the possibility of SDI deployments, be subjected to “mutually acceptable” decisions: no unilateral pursuit of SDI would ultimately be possible. This is the opposite of Reagan’s own proposal. Here we reach the issue of the world of the 1990s, and move from reality to utopia.

Both Reagan and Gorbachev have proposed drastic cuts in offensive nuclear weapons beyond 1991. Most experts agree that after a certain stage, when the numbers of offensive weapons on both sides have become low, each side is likely to worry increasingly about the vulnerability of the remaining ones, and about the decisive advantage the other side might gain from a major deception or technological breakthrough. Verification would become essential as cutbacks continue. Moreover, both sides, for different reasons, may fear that such reductions would severely impair their range of strategic choices. Soviet strategy has always envisaged a preemptive strike against the US, in order to limit damage to the USSR should war break out or appear inevitable. The US envisages attacks on Soviet military targets should Moscow’s forces threaten to take over Western Europe.3

Whether each side, when confronted with such uncertainties, would want to proceed anyhow is far from obvious. But again, SDI complicates matters. Reagan wants it as a safeguard against Soviet deception or attacks. Gorbachev wants none of it. One of the main Soviet reasons for opposing SDI is the fear that a defensive shield would serve an offensive purpose as long as the US has any nuclear weapons—by allowing the US to believe that it could attack the Soviet Union without exposing itself to devastating retaliation. The problem with Reagan’s position is that SDI, even unfettered from the constraints of the ABM treaty, may not be ready to play its role as an insurance policy by the early 1990s. It may well be hard, moreover, to convince Congress and the public that a program first presented as a response to Soviet heavy offensive missiles becomes even more necessary once these missiles are drastically cut back.

Let us assume, nevertheless, that dramatic cuts continue in the 1990s. Toward what end? At Reykjavik, as in the not so distant past—the Fifties and early Sixties, when both sides hurled plans of complete and general disarmament at each other—there was a remarkable difference between the two sides. The Soviet vision, first stated by Gorbachev last January, is that of a world without any superpower nuclear weapons or defensive systems at the end of ten years. Reagan proposed only the abolition of offensive ballistic missiles, also after ten years (although both Reagan and Donald Regan, after the meeting, talked about eliminating all nuclear weapons, and Gorbachev, in his speech of October 22, stated that Reagan had indeed, “albeit without special enthusiasm,” consented to the elimination of all offensive nuclear arms4 ). Neither conception is acceptable to the other side. The Soviet design would either turn the other nuclear powers into superpowers, or depend on their being coerced into nuclear disarmament: an unlikely prospect. Moreover, even if this hurdle could be overcome, it would result in a world dominated no longer by the nuclear balance of terror, but by a conventional balance of power, which favors the USSR unless the US and its allies make a vast and costly effort at conventional rearmament, or unless both sides agree on large reductions in conventional forces: prospects that are hard to visualize, much less count on. Talks about such reductions in Europe have been going on fruitlessly for fifteen years.

As for the American scheme, it would remove from America’s soil the threat of a Soviet ballistic missile attack, but preserve nuclear weapons on bombers and cruise missile systems in which the US has a major advantage. The US could still attack Soviet targets, for instance if a war breaks out in Europe or the Middle East. By consenting to such a scheme, Moscow would (1) wipe out its own current advantage (in numbers of ballistic missiles), (2) consolidate America’s advantage, and (3) allow the US to deploy SDI, despite the disappearance of the only weapons (ballistic missiles) against which it is devised. Insofar as the other major Soviet reason for hostility to SDI is its general technological significance—i.e., the Soviet fear that it would widen the technological gap between Washington and Moscow and set back decisively the Soviet Union in its persistent quest for status and equality in world affairs—the American plan is clearly unacceptable.

The proponents of “disarmament” and those of “arms control,” the radical champions of “abolition,” and the moderate advocates of “amelioration” have been adversaries not only throughout the nuclear age but ever since the appearance of a world of sovereign states. Usually, statesmen have been either heady players of the game of power or, at best, moderates. Academics, theologians, philosophers have been prominent among the disarmers and abolitionists. When American and Soviet statesmen join their ranks, one must ask why. It may be for be for public relations reasons—joining the antinuclear bandwagon. Both Reagan’s SDI (the perfect shield) and Gorbachev’s proposal of last January, Russia’s clever move in this public chess game, try to exploit the longing for a saner world. It may be because a leap into a radically different world would actually benefit their own country’s interests: This is most likely to be Gorbachev’s other motive. It may also be because of a belief that all mankind would be better off. This seems to be George Shultz’s reason for endorsing a world without nuclear ballistic missiles:

If ever anything starts, thirty minutes later it’s over with these awesome ballistic missiles. And there’s nothing left of them and there’s nothing left of us….

But if we can get rid of the threat of offensive ballistic missiles to us, which, remember, comes very fast—once they’re shot off they can’t be recalled—and they have a devastating impact. If we can get rid of that threat, which is the first time—the first time our land has been threatened, really, since the War of 1812, is by these ballistic missiles—we’re better off.

And no doubt, if you say, why then is the Soviet Union interested—the Soviet Union has shown over many wars that they are heroic in defending their homeland. Invading somebody else is another question, but they are heroic in defending their homeland.

And so, they also must be concerned about the ballistic missiles that we have that can wipe that homeland out. So that’s basically the essence of it.5

But quite apart from whether the West has the will and resources to match Soviet conventional forces, as Shultz argues, we have to think seriously about the more frequent objection to total nuclear disarmament, raised especially by many West European officials (and by most Frenchmen). While a failure of nuclear deterrence could be fatal, “mutual assured destruction” (or rather deterrence) has proved to be workable: the superpowers have carefully avoided major military confrontations. However convincing the abstract arguments that the weapons are “unusable” because of the damage that would result from the other side’s retaliation, uncertainty about their possible use acts as a deterrent. Historical experience shows, alas, that conventional deterrence has been far less successful: See even today the record of wars among nonnuclear powers. A “conventional” world would not live under the threat of total nuclear destruction, but conventional wars between the major powers might become far more likely again. Is that what we want?

Thus, after Reykjavik, we are faced with two major issues. In the months or years to come, Gorbachev will probably persist in his strategy of eroding SDI. He has warned that he counts on the “changeable internal political weather” in the US. In exchange for sticking to the concessions he made, he will keep insisting on a limitation of SDI. While even the reductions he offers do not fundamentally change our nuclear predicaments, they are important. At the same time, SDI, which has proved to be an excellent “bargaining chip,” remains a source of confusion in the US. If one thinks of the maximalist claims made for it, it is a dangerous, unconvincing, and costly extravagance. In the more modest form of a protection for land-based missiles, or of “insurance” against the concealment of ballistic missiles, it is a program that begins to make sense only after reductions in offensive forces are agreed upon—yet its pursuit only makes such an agreement impossible. The two obstacles to a realistic reconsideration of SDI are the President’s continuing dream of a perfect umbrella and the apocalyptic defense of SDI by hard-liners who are opposed to arms control and look toward the far-off day when SDI will confer on the US invincible power over the Soviet Union, notwithstanding all the evidence that this too is a fantasy.

The other issue is the shape of the world after a process curtailing the nuclear arms race has been carried out. Even though The Wall Street Journal tells us that MAD (mutual assured destruction) is dead,6 it remains our condition until nuclear weapons have all been abolished—and even then the world will still live in their shadow, since they can be destroyed, but not de-discovered. Even if nobody cheats, they could, like the rats of Camus’s The Plague, always return someday. Moreover, those who express the new, understandable, but somewhat facile revulsion against nuclear deterrence and cry for a world without nuclear weapons should start addressing some very tough questions, not only the Machiavellian one, of who would benefit most from a return to prenuclear politics, but also the ethical, or Kantian question: Do we want to make the world safe for the kinds of conventional wars that have devastated it twice during the first half of this century; or do we realize that the most fundamental issue in world politics is not the use or threat of nuclear force, but the use or threat of force, whether nuclear or not?

October 23, 1986

  1. 1

    See my analysis of Geneva and critique of SDI, “Fog Over the Summit,” The New York Review (January 16).

  2. 2

    Newsweek (October 13, 1986), p. 40.

  3. 3

    Cf., Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Farewell to Arms Control?” Foreign Affairs (Fall 1986), pp. 1–20.

  4. 4

    The New York Times (October 23, 1986), p. A12.

  5. 5

    From Shultz’s interview on The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour (October 17, 1986).

  6. 6

    Editorial, “Arms Control Unchained” (October 17, 1986), p. 28.

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