Coming Down from the Summit


The third summit meeting between President Reagan and Secretary General Gorbachev was very different from the two previous ones.1 In Geneva in 1985, nothing concrete was achieved; Reykjavík ended in failure after an unexpected trip to utopia. The Washington meeting was much more carefully prepared for. The treaty eliminating intermediate and shorter-range missiles provided for elaborate and unprecedented verification procedures inside the Soviet Union. Some progress was made in the difficult negotiations for the reduction of strategic nuclear arsenals by as much as 50 percent; but an agreement continues to depend on a reconciliation of the two governments’ positions on strategic defenses. In Washington Reagan and Gorbachev merely agreed to continue to disagree on the subject, and to postpone a showdown. Regional conflicts and human rights were discussed, but the two sides remained far from agreement on such issues as Soviet extrication from Afghanistan or Soviet emigration policies.

The Washington summit raises three issues for the future. One is the fate of the Strategic Defense Initiative. The gap between the two sides has narrowed somewhat, because the Soviets have become more flexible concerning the development and testing of defenses allowable under the ABM Treaty of 1972. Moreover, the refusal by Congress to accept the so-called broad interpretation of the treaty advocated by the administration—an interpretation that makes the treaty banning the development and deployment of defensive systems largely meaningless—has constrained the President’s drive toward unlimited research, development, and testing. But it remains difficult to imagine that the Soviets would accept a 50 percent reduction in offensive nuclear weapons unless the two sides agree either on banning the deployment of defensive systems or on strictly limiting them, say, to the protection of the fixed land-based nuclear ballistic missiles among those that would remain after the 50 percent reductions.

If the US refused to settle for such a solution, the Soviets would try to negate the effects of the American defensive effort, probably not by building a matching defensive system, which would be too costly and could be technologically unreachable, but by devising countermeasures and by multiplying the offensive weapons that could overwhelm American defenses.

It is unlikely that President Reagan will accept any limits on his dream of perfect defenses; but it is conceivable that his successor will be more awed by the costs of the combined defensive and offensive arms races that a failure to accept such limits would provoke and that he will be more aware of the laws of physics. Most of the US scientific community has expressed its skepticism about the feasibility of the President’s project. The Soviets are playing a waiting game, carrying on their own laser research while reminding us that they will not give up their policy of linking reductions in offensive weapons to the curtailment of “Star Wars.”


The second issue for the future is raised by the INF treaty. It concerns the relations between the US and its West European allies. They have formally applauded the treaty but…

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