With the customary Rose Garden fanfare, President Ronald Reagan last week wished “good luck and Godspeed” to retired General Ed Rowny, the chief U.S. negotiator at the Geneva strategic arms talks (START). But the American delegation last week returned to the negotiating table with more than good wishes. Attempting to seize the public relations offensive, the Reagan administration offered the Soviet Union a modified strategic arms proposal embracing the “build-down” concept of nuclear arsenals. Under it, both sides would agree to destroy one or more older warheads or missiles for every new system introduced. And, to guarantee reductions in the level of superpower arms, Washington suggested an annual five-per-cent cut in deployments when no new weapons are built.
The Soviet news agency TASS quickly denounced the proposals as “empty words meant to disguise Washington’s intention to achieve military-strategic superiority.” But the new proposal was clearly popular on Capitol Hill. Democrats and Republicans alike hailed the initiative as a sincere effort to break the negotiating deadlock at Geneva. Lawmakers were especially pleased that
Reagan had honored his pledge to include the build-down formula in the official U.S. position. The president had earlier promised to do so, in return for congressional support for the MX missile, the Pentagon’s new intercontinental ballistic system.
With rare bipartisan accord, the leg-
islators also welcomed the appointment of a Democrat, James Woolsey, to the Geneva negotiating team. Woolsey, who was former president Jimmy Carter’s under-secretary of the navy, and has been a foreign policy adviser to presidential candidate John Glenn, will keep close tabs on Rowny, whose commitment to arms control is treated skeptically by Democratic caucuses.
If there is a single dominating theme to Washington’s new offer, it is flexibility. While administration officials spelled out the details in background briefings, the president said publicly— for the first time—that he would negotiate limits on U.S. bombers and airlaunched cruise missiles if Moscow cut back on its land-based systems. That concession directly addressed earlier Soviet criticism, repeated last week by Soviet chief negotiator Victor Karpov on his arrival in Geneva before Reagan’s announcement, that the United States was trying to destroy the Soviet landbased arsenal while retaining its airand sea-launched missiles. Said Reagan: “There will have to be trade-offs, and the United States is prepared to make them, so long as they result in a more stable balance of forces.”
Under the START umbrella, a new U.S.-Soviet working group will examine the build-down proposal. For land-
based missiles, like the MX and Moscow’s SS-18, Washington said that two older warheads should be destroyed for every new one deployed. Sea-launched and mobile missiles would be dismantled under different ratios—three-totwo for submarine warheads and oneto-one for the still undeveloped Midgetman system. In essence, arms control officials are trying to write a script for the future that favors deployment of smaller, less-destabilizing weapons.
Washington will continue to press at Geneva for a limit of 5,000 warheads overall for both sides—a reduction of about a third from current levels. However, the president has told Rowny to abandon attempts to limit Moscow to 2,500 land-based warheads. The United States is now prepared to let the Soviets keep more of its land-based arsenal intact. It will also consent to reduce cruise missiles carried by strategic bombers from 8,000 to 3,500 and cut back the size of the fleet itself. In return, the United States will ask the Soviets to negotiate new ceilings on “missile throw weight”—a category in which the Kremlin now enjoys a three-to-one advantage.
Internally, the Reagan administration itself is deeply divided about the new proposal. Rowny and arms control administrator Kenneth Adelman apparently regard the initiative as a signal of U.S. weakness—concessions forced by domestic political pressures. Other state department advisers counselled delay, at least until the recent bout of U.S.-Soviet name-calling is brought under control. At best, the complexity of the build-down concept will require months of laborious negotiations, disappointing those who
had hoped for an early agreement.
Still, the president also had sound reasons for proceeding with the new offer. For one thing, it guarantees him support from such key Capitol Hill Democrats as Les Aspin in the House of Representatives and Sam Nunn in the Senate. If the START negotiations should fail, Reagan will be less vulnerable politically. As well, the bipartisan arms control consensus will make the Pentagon’s defence budget more salable, particularly the MX missile. A quick Soviet rejection of the build-down formula in Geneva risks offending the most moderate arms control voices in
Congress. The proposal may also be important in bolstering America’s image abroad. Accompanying West German President Karl Carstens to the White House last week, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said: “The key to success lies with Moscow. It is now up to the Soviet Union to respond constructively.”
In a related development at the United Nations, Soviet representative Oleg Troyanovsky read a speech on behalf of his absent foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, that called for a bilateral freeze on deployment of nuclear weapons, as well as a testing moratorium. Describing the prevention of the outbreak of nuclear war as “the most urgent task of our time,” the Soviets asked the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution urging the nuclear nations to adopt the freeze—“under appropriate verification.”
Administration officials did not regard either TASS’s commentary or Gromyko’s remarks as a formal reply to the build-down proposal. And there was an unmistakably upbeat spirit in Washington—not so much about the specifics of the offer as about its public relations aspect. As Reagan suggested in his farewell to Rowny, relations with the Soviet Union are now on a more “realistic” basis than they have been in the past. Although right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats dismissed the proposal as unverifiable or inadequate, the president had clearly captured the broad centre of the spectrum. Said Aspin: “If the Soviets are serious about arms control, here is something they can work with.” At the very least, the U.S.-Soviet dialogue may have entered a new and perhaps decisive stage.
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