A cautious return to the arms table

Jared Mitchell January 21 1985

A cautious return to the arms table

Jared Mitchell January 21 1985

A cautious return to the arms table


Jared Mitchell

The mood was cool, sober and intensely businesslike in Geneva. As Switzerland’s city of peace braced itself against a brutal European cold snap last week, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko arrived to bring some warmth to equally frosty East-West relations. Hidden behind a thick security cordon, the two statesmen shuttled between their respective United Nations missions, carefully avoiding more than 800 journalists assembled for the event. Their determinedly low profile betrayed the high stakes involved in rekindling the nuclear arms control process-stalled for 13 discomfiting months.

Then, after 14 xk hours of tough discussions spread over two days, a visibly weary Shultz delivered a verdict welcomed the world over: both sides had agreed to return to the bargaining table. After briefing President Ronald Reagan the following day, Shultz, the laconic former industrial relations expert, declared, “We got what we wanted.” For its part, the Soviet government’s Izvestia newspaper proclaimed, “The talks are on!”

Under the Geneva pact, Shultz and Gromyko agreed to begin a new round of negotiations, divided into three sets of talks. Two will focus on limiting and reducing both strategic intercontinental weapons and intermediate-range missiles based in Europe. A third forum will centre on defensive systems, including controversial space-based technology and antiballistic missiles. To reach the accord, both sides made significant concessions. Moscow dropped all four preconditions for resuming talks that Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko called for last fall as proof of American seriousness of purpose: a declaration of no first use of nuclear weapons; a nuclear arms freeze; a moratorium on developing antisatellite weapons; and formal ratification of nuclear test-ban treaties that the superpowers signed in 1974 and 1976. For its part, Washington consented to work toward preventing an arms build-up in outer space. Still, the step back to the bargaining table brought little overt joy to the poker-faced Shultz. “We feel pleased that we have a good agreement,” he said. “But nobody’s hat should go in the air.”

Indeed, the breakthrough in Geneva was limited. “What they accomplished is a procedural compromise,” observed John Steinbruner, director of foreign

policy study at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Added Soviet foreign ministry spokesman Vladimir Lomeiko: “This agreement is just the beginning. The negotiations themselves—the important part—lie ahead of us.” And when the actual bargaining begins—an exact date and site will be set next month and the talks could begin as early as March—a range of divisive issues stand in the way of progress.

Still, neither Soviet nor American leaders seem prepared to jeopardize the fragile start by reverting to the icy rhetoric that has chilled recent East-West relations. During the Shultz-Gromyko parley, the 30-man U.S. delegation maintained a stiff silence on the substance of the talks. Explained one aide: “This time we’re seeking results and not propaganda points.” The Soviet contingent was equally mute. Even afterward, the two sides seemed determined not to let public expectations get out of control. In the first nationally televised press conference since his November reelection, a low-key Reagan characterized the fruits of Geneva as “only a single step” and vowed to be “flexible, patient and determined” in pursuit of a weapons agreement. Standing in the swirling snows of Geneva, Gromyko

echoed that view, saying, “This is but a step compared to the immense tasks that are to be addressed.”

Despite that restraint, superpower allies on both sides of the Iron Curtain clearly welcomed the result. Briefed by senior Reagan advisers, government leaders in West Germany, Britain and Canada voiced unalloyed support for renewed dialogue. “The negotiating process will have positive implications for East-West relations,” said Canada’s External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, who was briefed in Ottawa by U.S. national security council staffer Jack Matlock. Soviet commentators were no less gratified. Commented Izvestia: “Fears vanished with the news [that] there will be negotiations.”

That sense of relief was not hard to explain. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979, relations between the superpowers have been in almost constant decline. They reached a low point in November, 1983, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began deployment of new Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe—intermediate-range nuclear weapons aimed at Soviet targets. NATO leaders argued that the new systems were needed to keep pace with Moscow’s bur-

geoning force of similar SS-20 missiles aimed at Western Europe. But Soviet negotiators walked out of talks on both intermediateand long-range arms reduction, icily vowing not to return until NATO’s new arsenals were dismantled.

Since then, the Reagan administration itself has been divided on whether it should be negotiating arms treaties at all. Hard-liners, led by Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, argued that arms accords would only lock the United States into a position of strategic inferiority. Suspicious right-wing Republicans cite alleged Soviet violations of existing treaties and regard arms control pacts as symbols of Western naïveté about a long-term Soviet menace. More moderate voices in Washington have counselled Reagan that an arms control pact with Moscow would ease global tensions and reassure Washington’s wary allies in Europe that it can manage relations with Moscow.

Talking arms control again should also help the President allay congressional anxieties about the arms race and persuade legislators to vote funds for Reagan’s “strategic defence initiative,” nicknamed Star Wars. The plan is intended to protect the U.S. nuclear arsenal from attack by destroying incoming Soviet missiles with space-based laser and particle-beam technology. Experts differ on whether such a system is technically feasible, but a $26-billion research program is under way. At his press conference last week Reagan de-

fended the concept, saying, “We’re searching for a weapon that might destroy nuclear weapons, not people.” While Shultz agreed in Geneva to discuss ways to avert an arms race in space, the administration continued to deny that Star Wars was negotiable. Said the secretary of state: “We don’t believe in bargaining chips.”

In fact, many arms control experts are convinced that it was fear of Washington’s new space war plans that lured the Kremlin back to the table. So far, Soviet scientists have failed to develop a system to match the U.S. proposal. And the staggering cost of developing a comparable capability would tax a Soviet economy already strained by a military budget that devours an estimated 15 per cent of the nation’s GNP (compared to 6.5 per cent in the United States). Other observers contend that the outcome in Geneva was the product of rethinking by the Soviet Politburo. “Their petulance and surliness of the past year have not produced any concrete results,” said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, former state department counsellor under Henry Kissinger. “In Western Europe governments found it easier to go ahead with deployment and defence projects in the atmosphere that was created. And in Eastern Europe there was also uneasiness about the Soviet war scare. So their whole tactic wasn’t really paying off.”

Moscow’s aim now, Washington hardliners believe, is for Moscow to influence public opinion in the West, using the

bait of a potential arms control agreement to win reductions in defence spending. Sonnenfeldt concurs: “The Soviets do want to play on public opinion in the West. They know every Western country has problems with defence budgets right now, including the United States and Canada. So they think it’s better to inhibit military spending by having negotiations going on.” Meanwhile, analysts last week were assessing the odds for an early superpower arms accord. By any measure, the obstacles were formidable. Among the basic unknowns is whether progress in one area of the new talks—strategic weaponry, for example—might be held hostage by either side to progress in another area, such as space-based systems. Many observers maintain that the chronic ideological schism within the Reagan administration, as well as the struggle to succeed the ailing Chernenko in the Kremlin, will make final agreement very difficult to achieve. Even if those roadblocks are cleared, differences between the two sides on verification and other critical issues remain profound. Flying out of Switzerland’s -20° C deep freeze last week, Shultz conceded, “It is clear that we have a long and arduous process ahead of us.”

Still, as both Washington and Moscow began preparations for what Reagan called the “new dialogue,” there was nearly unanimous agreement that the Geneva talks had recharged the sputtering engine of disarmament. At a social session in the U.S. mission building in Geneva last Monday night, the two delegations stood stiffly apart, arms folded. The ice only began to break between the uncomfortable diplomats when Shultz and Gromyko arrived. The veteran Soviet diplomat turned to his left, spoiling a photographer’s shot. “We have a convention when we go into this room,” Shultz quipped. “He goes to the left and I go to the right.” The ensuing laughter not only broke the diplomatic ice, it also underscored the genuine relief on both sides of the Atlantic that, at least for the moment, the superpowers had found some common ground.

Keith Charles

Marci McDonald

David North