Assuring Strategic Stability in an Era of Détente

EVEN though the translation of the Vladivostok Accord on strategic arms into a SALT II Treaty has not yet been resolved, I believe it is now timely to take stock of the strategic arms balance toward which the United States and the Soviet Union would be headed under the terms of such a treaty. To that end it is necessary to raise certain basic questions about the maintenance of strategic stability-in terms of minimizing both the possibility of nuclear war and the possibility that nuclear arms may be used by either side as a means of decisive pressure in key areas of the world.

It appears to be the general belief that while such strategic stability may not be assured by the SALT agreements, it is not and will not be substantially endangered-that on the contrary it has been furthered by the SALT negotiations and agreements since 1969-and that in any event the best hope of stability lies in further pursuit of negotiations with the aim of reducing the level of strategic weapons and delivery systems on both sides. Unfortunately-and to the profound regret of one who has participated both in the SALT negotiations and in a series of earlier U.S. decisions designed to stabilize the nuclear balance-I believe that each of these conclusions is today without adequate foundation.

On the contrary, there is every prospect that under the terms of the SALT agreements the Soviet Union will continue to pursue a nuclear superiority that is not merely quantitative but designed to produce a theoretical war-winning capability. Further, there is a major risk that, if such a condition were achieved, the Soviet Union would adjust its policies and actions in ways that would undermine the present détente situation, with results that could only resurrect the danger of nuclear confrontation or, alternatively, increase the prospect of Soviet expansion through other means of pressure.

While this highly disturbing prospect does not mean that strategic arms limitation should for a moment be abandoned as a U.S. (and world) goal, the practical fact we now face is that a SALT II treaty based on the Vladivostok Accord would not provide a sound foundation for follow-on negotiations under present trends. If, and only if, the United States now takes action to redress the impending strategic imbalance, can the Soviet Union be persuaded to abandon its quest for superiority and to resume the path of meaningful limitations and reductions through negotiation.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis