Many years of negotiating with the Soviet Union should have taught us some important lessons. But from the current blitz of press releases, vague public proposals and empty rhetoric as the November summit draws closer, it is apparent that both sides badly need a refresher course.
What should by now be an accepted fact is that the United States and the Soviet Union are both superpowers, roughly equal in strategic nuclear weaponry. Accordingly, neither can be bullied or pressured by the other's muscle-flexing to become more concession- minded. We should know by now that the Soviet leaders react no differently than we do to efforts at intimidation. The continued deployment of the Soviet SS-20, an intermediate-range missile that can strike our European and Asian allies but not the continental United States, gave the Soviet Union no bargaining power at the Geneva talks on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces. Instead, it facilitated deployment in Europe of U.S. Pershing II ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles. Bluster breeds bluster, not accommodation.
A second lesson that should long since have been learned is that, for the near term, neither country needs an arms-control agreement. Unlike a labor dispute, neither country will have to shut down if no deal can be struck on controlling nuclear arms; a steady succession of SALT treaties is not necessary to keep Russia or America in business. This is not to say, however, that unrestricted competition in the accumulation of nuclear weapons won't leave both countries less secure and closer to nuclear war.
The fact that prompt completion of agreements limiting strategic arms is neither a practical nor a political necessity underscores the fact that neither superpower will accet a deal that leaves it even marginally worse off. Unless an arms-control agreement is good for both, it's good for nothe bargaining table the nuclear superiority that neither can achieve by unilateral efforts is a fatuous one. Even if one country could outtrade the other by brilliant negotiating tactics, the resultant agreement would not be worth the paper on which it was printed; all arms-control agreements contain a clause recognizing that a party may renounce its obligations if it finds that its supreme interests are endangered.
A related lesson is that, in arms-control negotiations, you cannot get something for nothing. If we want the Soviets to give up, reduce or refrain from acquiring the kind of nuclear weapons that concern us most, we have to understand that they will demand in return that we refrain from actions that they deem a danger to their security. As Andrei Sakharov wrote in his open letter published in Foreign Affairs two summers ago: "For these talks to be successful the West should have something that it can give up!"
Unless this lesson is heeded, there can be no hope for progress on arms control when President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev meet in November. The United States would like to see drastic reductions in offensive missiles, particularly the land-based missiles with multiple warheads that account for the great preponderance of Soviet strategic strength. But Reagan and his colleagues have repeatedly stated their unwillingness to accept restrictions on the testing and development of a strategic defense system. This, in effect, invites the Soviet leaders to forfeit their retaliatory deterrent, since their drastically reduced number of missiles might be made ineffective by the proposed American defenses. Clearly, it is an invitation the Soviets will not accept. Instead, proposed deployment of an American strategic defense system will ensure a substantial increase -- rather than decrease -- in Soviet nuclear warheads.
Finally, many years of bilateral negotiations have taught us that major obstacles can only be eliminated by top-level attention. The negotiating teams can identify the big problems, but they cannot solve them. This can only be done when the leaders get together; only they have the authority to make the major compromises that will establish a framework that can then be fleshed out in detailed negotiations. This was the acomplishment of President Ford and General Secretary Brezhnev when they met at Vladivostok 11 years ago. Brezhnev overruled his advisers in agreeing to accept specific and equal numerical ceilings. And President Ford agreed not to press, in SALT II, for reductions in the Soviet heavy missiles.
If attention is paid to the lessons that should have been learned, and if Reagan and Gorbachev exercise comparable leadership in Geneva, they can find the compromise that will lead to a more far-reaching and stable arms-control regime. The president need not abandon his vision of a perfect defense that will make nuclear deterrence as well as nuclear missiles obsolete. All he need do is recoginze that existing technologies do not permit the realization of this vision and that the Strategic Defense Initiative must therefore remain a laboratory research program for the foreseeable future. In return, Gorbachev should be willing to agree to drastic mutual cuts in offensive missiles and warheads, with particular impact on the Soviet land-based multiple-warhead missiles.
As the leaders of the world's two most powerful nations prepare for the first summit in more than six years, they must remember that, in the nuclear age, ignoring the lessons of history may mean not to relive it, but to end it.