President Reagan put a high gloss -- "He comes home in triumph" -- on Secretary of State Alexander Haig's work at the NATO meeting. No doubt Haig deserved it. Working under pressure, he gave the allies the assurances they demanded of American readiness to negotiate with Moscow on limiting nuclear weapons in Europe, and he got the allies to go along with some tough Reagan-style talk about Soviet global conduct.
I fear, however, that the Haig performance, through a "trumiph" of sorts, was ephemeral and perhaps even deceptive. It came about against the better judgment of the administration's dominant national security figures, headed by President Reagan, and will not be easily sustained.
Check the fine print of the NATO communique: "The allies welcomed the intention of the U.S. to begin negotiations with the Soviet Union on Theater Nuclear Forces arms control" -- except the sentence didn't end there. It ended this way: "on Theater Nuclear Forces arms control within the SALT framework."
There's the rub. There is no SALT framework -- no framework within which to negotiate with Moscow, not just on European "theater" weapons but also on the weapons in the two great powers' control systems. Reagan has set aside the old framework but has not approached Moscow to construct a new one.
To promise to negotiate on European nuclear arms "within the SALT framework" is to throw a curve. It puts the United States in a posture of earnestness and permits the European allies to tell their anxious publics that, since the new administration is ready to move on the first track of a 1979 NATO decision to negotiate on limiting nukes in Europes, the Europeans should go ahead on the second track of starting two years hence. But if there is no SALT framework, there can be real negotiations over nukes based in Europe. The Europeans are bound to catch on.
Why is there no SALT framework? For that, one must turn away from Haig, who is manfully struggling to make do, and inspect the latest presentation by the president's chief foreign policy spokesman, White House counselor Edwin Meese III. On TV on Sunday, he was typically airy, open-ended and hear-to-get, suggesting that SALT talks depend on unspecified Soviet good conduct, on the "total context of world relations, "on the whole sense of timing and the sense of other matters," on "our own defense capabilities and what we're doing in this country," and so on.
Meese recalled that the president "has said he is not going to negotiate from a position of weakness, that he's not going to talk -- consider any kind of talks -- that would lead to a position of permanent inferiority for the United States, such as SALT II would have done. . . ."
This is vintage Reagan. It leads me to conclude that the president, having now had the chance to look over the strategic prospect from an inside vantage point, believes exactly what he believed when he was on the outside. He believes that SALT is a snare, that the West should not move toward negotiations -- except as a tactical concession to European jitters -- until it has demonstrated that it can do without whatever fruits those negotiations might bring, that the United States can and must achieve strategic superiority, and that the Soviet Union can be compelled to accept inferiority.
Some would call this toughness. I would call it a point of view fundamentally inconsistent with negotiation and with the proper goal of negotiation, which is not victory or superiority but compromise or accommodation -- what Elliot Richardson calls, honestly, a striving for "firmer and cheaper deadlocks." Reagan, by contrast, is a true radical, a Utopian, who would not merely adjust the balance but rewrite the whole equation in a way intended to restore the myth of American invincibility.
I happen to believe Reagan is profoundly mistaken. To me, SALT is a process that, wisely applied, can help to reduce the unavoidable costs and risks of the nuclear age and to maintain the civil dialogue that is the essential offset to the ongoing political competition between the great powers. The notion that either of them would accept permanent strategic inferiority, or would pay the political costs arising from it, contradicts everything I understand about them both.
The Europeans are bound to catch on to this, too, and then the alliance will be in real trouble.
Perhaps that is what it will take to sound an alert. The first phase of the crisis will break when the allies find out that theater nuclear talks have no prospects and the second when they realize that central-systems talks are being projected into the dim mists of a second Reagan term and that they have as their purpose the imposition of an unequal made-in-Washington design.