An administration reaches agreement on a treaty, but the Senate won't ratify. Or a president abandons negotiations carried far forward by his predecessor. Is the United States seen as an unreliable negotiating partner? Here a writer complains about the latest instance of this phenomenon -- President Reagan's halt to comprehensive test ban talks -- and we talk to Fred Ikle, former disarmament chief, now undersecretary of defense for policy, on the administration's wariness about talking with the Soviets.

Q: There is quite a history, not just in this administration, but generally in American governments lately, of either participating heavily in negotiations or actually going so far as to sign agreements and then somehow walking away from them. We think of SALT II, Law of the Sea, Threshold Test Ban and Peaceful Nuclear Explosion, a couple of fishing treaties with Canada. There is a record of this. What accounts for it?

A: I don't know whether other governments have a better record in ratifying the treaties that they sign, other governments that have a democratic ratification process. But you're right: it's happened before, from the League of Nations onward and probably backward, too. The Geneva Protocol of 1925, prohibiting the first use of chemical weapons, was negotiated with a lot of U.S. inspiration, and it was not ratified until 1975. I was myself involved in taking it to the Senate for ratification.

That incidentally is one of the agreements that the Soviet Union violated by using chemical weapons in Afghanistan. Then, there's been a long hassle about the genocide convention.

What accounts for these difficulties of ratification? Maybe our constitutional structure: the Senate's two-thirds requirement, and the fact that in a change of administrations there's almost always a certain change in foreign policy.

Q: But is there no feeling of the sanctity of the contract, the gravity of the treaty? Would it not be desirable to have such feelings come to be the political norm?

A: Well, we shouldn't walk away lightly from any international agreement that has been signed by the president. But there are two steps -- signature and ratification -- and this is understood by other governments that negotiate with the United States.

Q: Let us take the threshold test ban and the peaceful nuclear explosion agreement, which were signed in '76. You were involved in both. What is the American ratification problem? What is the hangup?

A: There are three hangups. First, at the end of the Ford administration we had to package together the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaty because they are legally linked. But it was too late in the administration to get ratification.

Early in 1977, the Carter administration decided to submit these twin treaties to the Senate for ratification, and I remember myself testifying in behalf of ratification together with Paul Warnke. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was about to vote out favorably the recommendation for ratification when the Carter administration pulled the package back because they felt it would divert from the effort to get a comprehensive test ban treaty, banning all tests, regardless of size.

After that the Carter administration did not want to submit it throughout the four years. Once they'd pulled it back, they just left it lying there.

In the Reagan administration, we do not have the concern that these twin treaties would interfere with a comprehensive test ban. But we have deeper concerns about their verifiability. That is because we have had some additional experience with the Soviet test program. That program was supposedly under the limits negotiated in the threshold treaty. We had an agreement worked out between the Soviet Union and us to temporarily observe these limits, even without ratification. But for many tests, it was impossible for us to know enough.

Q: Why? Was some evidence developed in the intervening five years that gave you grounds for reservations about the verifiability?

A: Right. Facts that were not that clear in '74 when we negotiated that treaty came to light. We saw these seismic signals coming in from Soviet tests, and in several instances throughout the late '70s, we really were unable to determine whether the test wasn't substantially at a larger yield than the agreement allowed.

Q: That's a statement with some heavy implications -- an argument for those who will say, "Well, you can't ever be sure. Something might turn up. We'd better wait." It makes it very hard to call positively for the ratification of anything.

A: Well, there are two things that happened that made us more concerned. One, we learned somewhat more about how difficult this seismic analysis would turn out to be. Two, as a backdrop to this uncertainty, we had had the experience of the violation of the biological weapons convention, which had been signed in 1972 and ratified in 1975.

In the early '70s, we had the view that the Soviet Union would probably not violate a treaty if doing so was of marginal military value -- even if verification would be rather difficult. We felt if there was at least a chance of detection, the Soviet Union would not want to run the risk of the reaction that would occur in event of such discovery. Now, after what has happened on the biological weapons convention, we no longer have this comforting expectation.

Q: What you're talking about then is not so much the result of new scientific techniques of monitoring. It is a new or different political interpretation -- a difference in judgment not about science but about Soviet intentions and reliability. Whether or not it is justified, it does mean we will change our terms in mid-negotiation. So is there any way we can establish some consistency in our negotiation? What guarantee can we give anyone, not just in terms of ratifying a treaty that's been signed but of the continuity of the thinking of our negotiators, that they are not wasting their time?

A: I think the issue is more narrow here. It's not a general problem of American unreliability. There's not a broad overall revision of American views on the Soviet Union. There's one particular revision: our view of the reliability of arms control agreements for which verification is inadequate or marginal.

In earlier years, we felt since all the arms control agreements in some sense hang together and since there seemed to be a Soviet interest in arms control, the Soviet government would not want to incur the risk of undermining this entire edifice by violating a few agreements here and there, where they might get away with it because they were hard to verify. After what we have learned of the "yellow rain" -- the Soviet use of prohibited biological weapons -- we can no longer think that way. That doesn't mean that we don't want to negotiate. Obviously, we are negotiating.

Q: Then you don't think this changeability reflects something distinct or characteristic of this country as a negotiator?

A: No. Just recall the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. There was a long list of countries that had signed, but it took years and years to get the ratification, in some cases 10 years. I don't think American habits are particularly bad in this respect.

Q: Earlier in the '70s there was a common feeling that negotiations with, especially with, the Soviet Union were very difficult but were a necessary instrument for achieving American security interests. This administration does not put so much reliance on serving our security by means of negotiating agreements with the Soviet Union but rather by steps that we take on our own. What are the implications of this?

A: I believe it would be fair to say that the Reagan administration takes a more pragmatic view toward negotiating with the Soviet Union, that it thinks this is just one process among many processes of dealing with the Soviet Union. In particular that the approach of the Carter administration of considering the SALT negotiations almost the be-all and end-all of our relationship with the Soviet Union, that approach was mistaken.

Under the best of circumstances strategic arms limitation agreements could only cover a small sector of our military relationship and a smaller sector even of our overall relationship, but the Carter administration seemed to feel that really the entire U.S.-Soviet relationship hinged on SALT.

Q: So that even if this administration had to deal in our political arena with the charge that it backed off from an agreement negotiated by three presidents, not just Carter, and had thus incurred some suggestion of unreliability, you think that this is a lesser charge, that this is a lesserprice to pay considering the gains that come about by virtue of adopting a firmer security policy?

A: Well, if you're talking about the SALT II agreement, first of all, it's two presidents, Presidents Ford and Carter. The treaty was submitted by the Carter administration to the Senate and encountered a lot of criticism, mixed reaction without coming to a vote in the Senate, a negative reaction in the Senate Armed Services Committee, and in the end the treaty was pulled back from ratification by the Carter administration. So the president, who was instrumental in negotiating the greater part of that very treaty, himself didn't push it.

Q: We have a situation now where a particular MX basing option, Dense Pack, is being studied and the question arises as to whether that would be consistent with the ABM treaty on one side and perhaps with some provisions of SALT I on the other. Are those considerations that are real, that are troubling at all?

A: Well, they are important considerations. If and when there is a concrete proposal, we would obviously have to review it and see whether it would require a change in the ABM treaty. At this time, we do not have any proposal for an ABM system to protect the MX deployment that is sufficiently advanced to make this judgment. Likewise, once the particular way of basing the MX is developed in final form, we have to see whether our temporary policy of not undercutting the SALT provisions can be continued or has to be discontinued.

The ABM treaty is a valid treaty; there is no question about undercutting or not undercutting. If there was a conflict between an important way of protecting the MX and the ABM treaty, that would then raise the question of whether or not we want to try to renogotiate the treaty. But it's clear that we are legally bound to abide by the ABM treaty.

Q: So if matters come to that, it's not a question of violating that treaty, it's a question of attempting to change the terms of it?

A: Correct.

Q: Could public confidence and public interest in arms control negotiation as a method of serving our security survive the reopening of the ABM treaty? The ABM treaty and SALT are popularly regarded as the bedrock, the scripture, what negotiations are all about. Once you start going into those, what do you have left?

A: I beg to disagree. The opinion polls went quite strongly against SALT II, particularly when the issue of ratification was a prominent issue in the Senate, and in opinion polls support for SALT II often fell below a majority of the public. On the other hand, the ABM treaty, among the people who focused on it, is probably regarded as a more solid treaty.

But in a way, the belief in arms control, I think, is surprisingly sturdy, maybe almost too sturdy. And one might wonder whether the belief should not be shaken more by the fact that the very party with which we are currently negotiating treaties has been caught violating a treaty.

Well, here's a partner with whom you are dealing in a particular area and in this very area where you are trying to make additional contracts he has violated an important contract, yet you continue to negotiate contracts with him.

Q: You're saying then that, in effect, our changeability in negotiating is a lesser problem, a lesser offense than the fact that our principal negotiating partner negotiates a law and then cheats?

A: Oh, indeed, an immensely lesser offense.