How to Kill Arms Control

Bush and Gorbachev
Bush and Gorbachev; drawing by David Levine

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…

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