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How to Kill Arms Control

The deliberations of arms control negotiators are usually made to appear so esoteric that as talks drag on, public interest in what is happening, or assumed to be happening, is apt to lag, and then die. That certainly happened to the so-called Mutual Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks that were quietly and formally ended this year. The new Vienna negotiations on conventional forces that have begun their second session are unlikely to share that fate. In May President Bush set a year’s deadline for agreement. If it seems by next May that an agreement is still far off, there is bound to be widespread public concern. Too much political capital has been committed, too much has been promised, not only by the President but also by Mr. Gorbachev and Chancellor Kohl, for it to be otherwise.

One salient lesson that can be drawn from the history of arms control talks in the postwar years is that it is a waste of time to negotiate on major arms control issues unless the leaders of the two sides are determined to reach the same goal, and begin by instructing their officials to discuss matters to a solution rather than arguing them to an impasse. As I have said in an earlier article,1 only President Bush and Mr. Gorbachev can resolve any significant differences that exist between the US and USSR negotiating positions not only in the Vienna talks but also in the Geneva talks on Strategic Nuclear Forces (START). This is not something that can be left to their officials. If both leaders want to reduce the chances of war, they, not their subordinates, have to be in charge.

This is the only conclusion that can be drawn when one contrasts the INF negotiations with those that were concerned with the banning of nuclear tests. Instead of the INF negotiations, the same point could equally well be illustrated by referring to the successful ABM negotiations of the late Sixties and early Seventies, but that is a longer story. It is all too easy to forget the facts about these three series of negotiations.


The INF Treaty

In 1981 President Reagan offered the USSR what was then called the zero-zero option—an undertaking that the US would not introduce Pershing IIs and land-based Cruise missiles into Europe (missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers) if the USSR removed the scores of recently deployed SS-20s that already covered NATO “targets”—and more of which were still being deployed. The USSR was then competing with the US in an arms race that was unrealistically based on the assumption that wars can be fought with nuclear weapons, whether big or small, and whether of battlefield or intercontinental range. This proposition was rejected by the USSR, by whom it was regarded as being highly lopsided when viewed within the prevailing “nuclear numbers game.” The USSR was being asked to surrender a weapon that it had already deployed in exchange for an undertaking that the US would not deploy two that were still, as it were, in store.

Nothing came a year later of the famous “walk-in-the-woods” compromise formula that each side should be allowed to deploy seventy-five intermediate-range launchers, with the US agreeing that their package would not include Pershing II missiles (which were of particular concern to the USSR since their range meant that they could reach targets in Soviet territory). With stalemate persisting, the US went ahead at the end of 1983 with the deployment of the missiles to which it had committed itself, but with several of its NATO partners who were, while in agreement, unhappy at the outcome.

From the point of view of the US and NATO, nothing changed during the next two and a half years—except that in several NATO countries public protests against the introduction of the new US nuclear weaponry continued, and indeed increased. Moscow, however, had quietly started to prepare far more radical proposals than Reagan’s original zero-zero option. Some say that this happened because of the firm stand that the US had already taken on the INF issue—in the jargon of our day, that “bargaining from strength” had paid off.

In any case, at Reykjavík in October of 1986 Gorbachev not only offered to destroy all the USSR’s intermediate- and shorter-range missiles if the US got rid of the smaller number which it was then deploying in Europe; he went one step further and proposed that the two sides should destroy their smaller “battlefield” nuclear weapons as well, including, for example, nuclear artillery and nuclear mines. He wanted the US and USSR to achieve the goal of a nuclear-free world by the year 2000.

In a single stroke the USSR thus appeared to break with “nuclear accountancy,” by making it clear that from the political point of view all that matters in the East-West nuclear world is a mutual determination that neither side should be destroyed by the atom, and an understanding that if the goal of a nuclear-free world is unobtainable then the maintenance of a state of mutual deterrence demands only the deployment of no more nuclear weapons than would be needed to pose a reciprocal and minimal threat of unacceptable destruction. Since the armories of strategic weapons of the US and USSR are vastly in excess of what any such criterion implies—say the certain elimination of each other’s six largest cities—the two could accordingly reduce their intercontinental (i.e., strategic) forces immediately by at least a half—a goal to which both Reagan and Gorbachev were in fact already committed, and one that remains the overt purpose of the START talks which began well over a decade ago, and which have just been reanimated.

Once the two political leaders had formally agreed that it was to their mutual advantage to eliminate nuclear missiles in the range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers—and despite the failure to agree about shorter-range or “battlefield” nuclear weapons—the rest was easy. In barely a year officials had produced the draft of an INF treaty that laid out its objectives in the most amazing detail, spelling out the way in which the inspection teams of the two sides were to verify each other’s compliance with the treaty, even down to the understanding that teams would be provided with “sewage facilities” if, in accordance with the terms of the agreement, one or the other side decided to build a permanent monitoring station at a particular site. In the first year after the treaty came into force, a combined total of 1,269 US and Soviet missiles were destroyed. US inspectors have witnessed the destruction of 945 Soviet missiles, and Soviet inspectors of 324 US missiles.2 They have been going about their work without any fuss, without disturbing our sleep, and almost unnoticed by the press.

The USSR’s agreement to on-site inspection did not come about as a consequence of discussions between officials about what measures of verification would provide a guarantee that the obligations of an INF treaty were being strictly observed. That kind of discussion could have been dragged out endlessly by either side, or indeed by both. The agreement to allow on-site inspection in the USSR was a political decision taken at the highest level. What the INF story has also shown is that the state of nuclear deterrence does not depend on the deployment of precise numbers or particular classes of nuclear weapons. East and West were deterred from taking military action against each other long before any INF weapons were ever deployed, and neither side is less “deterred” now that this class of weapon, having been deployed, is being destroyed.


The Test Ban Talks

The successful INF story needs to be compared with the abortive negotiations to achieve a test ban treaty. The story, which many will say fully justifies Alva Myrdal’s charge that under the banner of arms control the superpowers were merely indulging in subterfuges and half-truths, began in 1955 with the appeal that was made by Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian prime minister, for an end to all nuclear testing because the radio-active fallout from atmospheric nuclear explosions was a danger to the whole world.

Three years passed before the offending countries—the US, the USSR, and the UK—agreed to open technical talks to see whether, given a treaty to ban tests, they could satisfy each other that evasions could not go undetected, given that any one of them tried to steal a march by improving an old or by designing a new warhead. The first set of talks between technical representatives of the three nuclear weapons powers went well. They had no problem about nuclear explosions in the atmosphere or the seas—those could easily be detected—but there were difficulties about underground explosions. Nonetheless, the three teams soon agreed on a report in which they stated that given a worldwide network of seismological stations, the signals produced by an earthquake could be distinguished from those of an underground explosion down to a level of a one- to five-kiloton nuclear device, that is to say, an explosive nuclear charge far less powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

The moment the technical report was circulated in the US, the critics got to work, with a host of arguments based on the proposition that whatever was agreed to, the USSR was bound to cheat, and could do so easily.3 Even if one assumed no cheating, other objections were raised against the idea of a comprehensive test ban. An adequately arranged global network of seismometers could indicate the general location of an underground disturbance. But if the dividing line on whatever scale by which the severity of earthquakes was measured was set low enough, the network would not be able to differentiate between a small explosion and a minor natural underground disturbance. How small was small became a contentious issue. The critics insisted that any underground movement that registered less than 4.85 on the Richter earthquake scale might have some military significance. To uncover possible cheating it would therefore be necessary to investigate on the spot the large number of natural underground disturbances registering less than 4.85 which could be expected to occur every year in Soviet territory. It is worth nothing that this was the first time that the issue of verification became an overriding consideration in arms control negotiations. Up to as many as twenty annual on-site inspections were first called for.4

The USSR refused. Negotiations reduced the number, but broke down by the time it had fallen to seven, the lowest figure that President Kennedy was able to accept. Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, believed that it was worth risking the possibility of a few evasions to secure the prize of a comprehensive test ban. The strong possibility of detection of even small explosions, he thought, made violations most unlikely. Moreover, single small explosions might go undetected, but an entire series of explosions, which in those days weapons designers inevitably demanded when working on a new warhead, would certainly raise suspicions. Khrushchev had already agreed with Macmillan that he would accept three inspections a year, a figure that he assumed had been secretly agreed on with the US. He was no more prepared to narrow the gap between three and seven, both arbitrary figures, than was Kennedy. That was the finish of hopes of a comprehensive test ban and of an end to the nuclear arms race. The result was a treaty that did not even limit underground testing.

  1. 1

    See “Converging on Peace?,” a discussion of The World at Peace: Common Security in the Twenty-First Century, by the Palme Commission on Disarmament and Security issues, published in Stockholm, April 1989, The New York Review (September 28, 1989).

  2. 2

    International Herald Tribune, June 2, 1989.

  3. 3

    It was claimed that the Soviets would carry out tests on the other side of the moon; warheads would be exploded in vast underground caverns where the force of the shock would be “decoupled” from the walls, making it impossible for seismometers either to detect the explosion or to register the true yield of whatever had been detonated; tests would be carried out in earthquake zones, the explosions being timed to coincide with a natural disturbance. Thinking up ways of defeating a test ban became a specialized occupation for armchair strategists, whose writings were no doubt being closely followed in the USSR.

  4. 4

    At the time of the negotiations, there was argument about the way to calculate the magnitude of underground disturbances and about the relationship of seismic magnitude to size of explosion. Consequently, there was no agreement about the number of suspicious events that would justify a call for on-site inspection in the USSR. Some “experts” insisted that as many as a hundred would be necessary.

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