As we enter the fall of 1980, the future of efforts to limit armaments through international negotiations is very much in doubt. President Carter's decision in January to defer Senate debate on the SALT II treaty only recognized formally what had long been apparent: in many ways the troubled history of SALT II already had represented a significant, perhaps fatal, defeat for negotiated arms limitations-regardless of the specific fate of the treaty itself. Even before the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, enthusiasm for arms limitations had become increasingly restrained within the Administration (to put it mildly) as the SALT agreement's political problems had become increasingly evident. Moreover, the national SALT debate and related developments had occasioned perceptions in the Congress and among the public at large of political and substantive liabilities of negotiated arms limitations that seemed likely to give pause to any President in 1981.

Few would have predicted such a state of affairs. Upon taking office, President Carter set ambitious objectives for, and assigned unprecedented priority to, arms limitations. The design of the MX missile system, for example, the most expensive weapons program backed by the Carter Administration, was strongly influenced by projected requirements for verifying future negotiated limitations on strategic weapons. Similarly, early in 1977 the President established tough unilateral policies aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation and restraining sales of conventional weapons. Most important, in March 1977, U.S. objectives in the ongoing SALT negotiations were reevaluated and a more ambitious negotiating position adopted. At the same time, then, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance proposed the creation of new U.S.-Soviet arms limitation working groups. Eight such groups were agreed upon: antisatellite weapons, chemical weapons, civil defense, comprehensive nuclear test ban, conventional arms transfers, demilitarization of the Indian Ocean, prior notification of missile tests, and radiological weapons and new types of mass destruction weapons.

The results of this ambitious program have been modest. Indeed, in the closing months of the present Administration, efforts to place limitations on armaments have been at a standstill, their prognosis bleak.

Judged strictly on their own criteria, unilateral efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and to restrain arms sales may have made progress for a time, but seem to have accomplished little of permanence. During the second half of 1979, as concern about the substantive and political consequences of Soviet military assertiveness mounted within the Administration, the President reversed himself on a series of arms transfer decisions, authorizing sales of OV-10 aircraft to Morocco and of large quantities of munitions to Saudi Arabia, and making a crucial blanket exception to the arms transfer restraint policy by permitting development of a new aircraft whose only markets would be found overseas. Similarly, efforts to restrain nuclear proliferation were set back in 1979 by the ambiguous results of the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) study,1 several international deals involving components of civilian nuclear power systems, an unexplained event near South Africa which could have been a nuclear explosion, and the Administration's reversal of prior decisions not to provide economic or military assistance to Pakistan because of that nation's program to develop a nuclear explosive capability. While these individual decisions may be understandable in the light of world events, and although the nonproliferation and arms transfer policies did score some important early successes, at the end of three years both policies clearly were taking second place to more traditional concerns.

Even greater disappointments occurred in the negotiations. The SALT II negotiations were concluded successfully, but the treaty's fate is at best uncertain. Of the U.S.-Soviet working groups, negotiations on civil defense and prior notification of missile tests were never held;2 three negotiations which did begin have since been terminated-in fact, if not formally;3 and two negotiations-for a comprehensive nuclear test ban and a ban on chemical weapons-continue, but with no agreement in sight. Agreement also remains elusive in a negotiation already proceeding when President Carter took office: talks for mutual and balanced force reductions in Europe. Only one negotiation was concluded successfully: that on radiological weapons; elements of an agreement acceptable to both the United States and the Soviet Union have been presented to the U.N. Committee on Disarmament for consideration and possible inclusion in a multilateral treaty.

Why was it not possible to accomplish more? To be sure, these activities were pursued in a domestic environment that included the same social and political factors which in recent years have made virtually any national policy difficult to establish and even harder to sustain over the long term. The absence of a national consensus, the dispersion of power within the Congress, the continuing conflict between the executive and legislative branches over appropriate roles in foreign policy decision-making, the legacy of suspicion and distrust of the presidency inherited by Jimmy Carter, the erosion of the major political parties and the rise of single-issue interest groups-all contributed to the difficulties of U.S. foreign policy in general and U.S. arms limitation efforts in particular.

Moreover, the climate for arms limitations had been strongly and adversely affected by the continuing buildup of Soviet military power. Roughly 16 years in duration by 1980, the broad scope and relentless pace of the buildup has had dramatic effects on Western public and elite perceptions of the political and military implications of U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations. Although these Soviet military efforts raise certain specific security concerns, their perhaps more important effects are diffuse and political in character. The Soviet Union's continued willingness to allocate a relatively large percentage of its relatively scarce resources to military forces which already-to a Western eye-appear excessive for defensive purposes, has raised the most serious questions about Soviet ambitions.

Continuing turbulence and frequent military conflicts in the Third World have seriously aggravated the situation. These conflicts, which more often than not have challenged a status quo favoring the West, pose problems enough. Direct or indirect Soviet involvement, when it occurs, adds another and more threatening dimension to Third World turmoil. To be sure, these Soviet military programs and activity in the Third World do not violate any arms control agreement.4 Moreover, short of war, negotiating mutual limitations on armaments remains the only direct way to constrain Soviet armed forces. Yet the political logic of the situation even before the occupation of Afghanistan was such that Soviet military decisions clearly made efforts to form and sustain the constituencies necessary to ensure the success of arms limitation initiatives far more difficult.

The U.S. Senate's SALT deliberations are instructive. At the end of the first round of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings in August 1979, prospects for the treaty seemed bright. Criticisms of the specific terms of the treaty aired during the extensive sessions of the committee had been fully discussed and largely discredited. Remaining concerns focused mainly on what commitments to military spending the Carter Administration would be willing to make to offset charges that SALT could induce a certain euphoria in the U.S. government and among the public which would lead to neglect of the defense budget. Although passage was far from certain, betting in Washington was that approval by the full Senate would be in hand by Thanksgiving. The subsequent travails of the treaty are traceable not to the surfacing of any new arguments about the agreement itself, nor to new information about the balance of strategic weapons, but to other types of events. The revelation in September that there was a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba and the subsequent pseudocrisis delayed the committee markup. Once sufficient time had passed for the hoopla to die down, the committee reviewed the treaty line by line, again demonstrating the weaknesses of substantive criticisms of the agreement itself. The treaty was passed by the full committee in November without amendments significant enough to require renegotiation. Then, however, came the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which delayed the opening of floor debate, and, finally, the coup de grace administered by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

What now? Obviously, not much will happen in the near term-at least through the U.S. election. But what of the period after 1980? Should there be continued efforts to limit arms through negotiations? What objectives, if any, are realistic? Much will depend upon the resolution of two fundamental issues: the continuing debate about the desired character of U.S.-Soviet relations, and a largely unstated argument about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. foreign policy.


Surveying the connection between U.S.-Soviet relations and the progress of arms negotiation over the past ten years, it is worth recalling the words of Vladimir S. Semyonov, who began the Soviet presentation at the first session of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in 1969:

The government of the U.S.S.R. attaches great importance to the negotiations on curbing the strategic arms race. Their positive results should undoubtedly contribute both to improvement in Soviet-American relations and in the consolidation of universal peace.5

Thus, at the very outset of the talks, the concept which eventually was to break the back of the SALT process was recognized formally: linkage, the idea that progress toward arms limitation would lead to progress in other aspects of U.S.-Soviet relations and, conversely, its corollary, that cooperation (or lack of cooperation) in other aspects of U.S.-Soviet relations would facilitate (or hamper) movement in arms negotiations. Both the United States and the Soviet Union have been ambivalent about "linkage." Each has stressed or de-emphasized "linkage" when it was in its own interest to do so. In the end, however, the concept took firm root in the American political system and, as a result, imposed a heavier burden on the talks than they could possibly bear; indeed, the notion implied a model of U.S.-Soviet relations which was strongly opposed by a variety of groups with powerful voices in national security decision-making.

Given their ideological origins, it would be surprising if Soviet commentators did not stress interrelationships between negotiated arms limitations and broader accommodation between the United States and the Soviet Union. From a Marxist theoretical perspective, the source of all conflict is economic and by extension political, stemming fundamentally from the existence of historically antagonistic social systems. To a Marxist theorist, the basic premise of arms control-that weapons in themselves contribute to the risk of war-is sophistry. Conflict results from the necessary clash of opposing social forces. The alleviation of conflict, therefore, can only result from broad political accommodation. By making preexisting settlements specific and legally binding, arms limitation agreements can strengthen political accommodations but they can never force new arrangements; they are the "practical embodiment" of détente, not its cause.

At times, the Soviets have been willing to demonstrate the practical consequences of this relationship. Perhaps the best example occurred in December 1978. At that time, Secretary Vance met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Geneva in what was widely viewed as likely to be the final round of substantive SALT II negotiations. Indeed, the White House had begun media preparations to announce completion of the agreement. Just prior to the round, however, the United States declared its intention to normalize relations with China, a process to be marked by the visit of Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping to Washington the following month. In response, the Soviets demonstrated their belief that political conditions were not yet right for U.S.-Soviet arms limitations by elevating to new prominence at the final session what previously had been perceived as relatively minor issues, thus delaying the U.S.-Soviet summit expected to cap the negotiations.

For the most part, however, the close linkage between movement in broader political relations and progress in arms limitations which would seem to be dictated by Soviet theory has not proved to be important in practice. Most notably, in 1972 the Soviets completed SALT I as scheduled, despite the United States' mining of Haiphong and other North Vietnamese ports on the eve of the summit (an act which trapped or damaged a number of Soviet-flag merchant ships). More recently, the Soviets have vigorously protested U.S. attempts to link progress in arms negotiation to the curtailment of Soviet military activities in Africa, Cuba and South Asia.

To be sure, Soviet forebearance did not result either from devotion to the cause of arms limitation or from a rejection of their Marxist heritage in favor of historic American pragmatism. What did happen was that the stream of world events and the dictates of Soviet internal politics were such that the Brezhnev regime found pursuit of SALT very much in its interest, despite continued erosion of the broader context of U.S.-Soviet relations. In fact, as U.S.-Soviet relations deteriorated, the Soviets pressed harder across the range of negotiations, adopting increasingly conciliatory positions and raising expectations in several. It is as if they saw in arms limitation negotiations the only remaining evidence of the possibility of U.S.-Soviet cooperation, and clung to them in desperation as Brezhnev's policy of détente otherwise was torn asunder.

In the United States, the experience has been just the opposite. The American theory of arms control would isolate such negotiations from politics. In theoretical terms, arms limitation talks should be viewed as technical exercises, directed at constraining the risks which weapons themselves add to existing political conflicts. As those espousing arms control made no pretense of solving political conflicts through the negotiations they proposed, they saw no relationship (other than that artificially instilled by politicians) between progress or lack of progress in settling underlying sources of conflict and progress or lack of progress in arms negotiations. Indeed, they accepted international tensions as inevitable and saw arms limitation talks simply as one way to manage their more dangerous consequences.

In practice, however, the United States has closely linked movement in arms control with broader political accommodation with the Soviet Union. Specifically, successive U.S. Administrations, perhaps reluctantly, have frequently concluded that there could not be movement in arms talks unless or until the Soviet Union modified its international behavior so as not to pose military challenges to Western interests. Examples are legion. The start of the talks, for example, planned for 1968, was delayed by the occupation of Czechoslovakia. In 1976, completion of the Vladivostok accord was deferred because of Soviet military involvement in Angola. And, despite its public protestations to the contrary, as early as 1978 the Carter Administration's positions in SALT and other arms negotiations were strongly influenced by the deterioration of U.S.-Soviet relations, punctuated by such events as the Soviet military involvement in the Horn of Africa and the East German and Cuban roles in the Shaba incident in Zaïre.

This sensitivity on the part of American policymakers should be expected in a democratic political system. Policies-especially innovative policies that run counter to traditional ways of doing business6-cannot be sustained without substantial political constituencies. SALT suffered more from rising uneasiness among the American populace about Soviet military power and Soviet assertiveness than from any deficiencies of its own. Never mind that SALT was the one policy instrument that conceivably could place limits on Soviet forces. The concept that prevailed in the public's mind extended the basic premise of linkage (i.e., that progress in arms control could facilitate progress in broader relations) to an assertion that if arms control was worth pursuing, it would result in broader accommodation. Since there was no evidence of such a broad accommodation, the argument ran, then obviously arms control was at least not serving its purposes and probably, in some mysterious way, was itself contributing to the problem. As this concept took root, first among conservative Republicans and later in a broader segment of the public, both the Ford and Carter Administrations felt compelled to behave as though they accepted it as well.

In effect, the SALT talks became a weathervane of U.S.-Soviet relations, the centerpiece and primary symbol of a certain model of that relationship. As such, the talks were criticized by, indeed contributed to, the creation of a coalition of dedicated opponents who fought both the treaties and the process which led to them, as much for what they implied for U.S.-Soviet relations as for whatever specific limitations they did or did not impose on American and Soviet nuclear weapons.

The 1972 treaty which placed severe limitations on antiballistic missile (ABM) systems is the key factor here. By agreeing not to deploy weapons that could create the illusion of a capability to defend against a major nuclear attack, the two nations formally recognized the probability that each would suffer unprecedented destruction in the event of a major nuclear exchange. Thus, they accepted the necessity for a certain degree of cooperation in their relations and implicitly set limits on their competition. This is not to say that they agreed to get along with one another, to end the rivalry, or anything like that; far from it. Still, they did establish a formally recognized mutual need to stop the competition from getting out of hand, to avoid confrontations that could contain a real danger of nuclear war.

The ABM treaty is thus a central element in the quest for cooperative U.S.-Soviet relations. The continuing SALT process supported the viability of the ABM treaty; limits on defensive weapons probably cannot be sustained in the presence of a wide-open offensive weapons race. SALT thus came to symbolize America's acceptance of the need to get along with the Soviet Union. Additionally, by linking the United States and the U.S.S.R. in a cooperative venture reserved for them and no other nations, SALT set the two superpowers apart from all other states-even America's allies.

To many Americans these postures are wrong, both morally and in terms of U.S. security interests. They believe that the United States must seek to change Soviet society and, that to do so, it must remain in a state of tension with the Soviet government. They argue that if it is isolated, the Soviet state eventually will crack of its own internal contradictions-nationalities problems, economic failures, corruption, the natural yearnings of individuals for freedom, and so forth. This means that the United States should seek to construct a wall of implacable hostility around the U.S.S.R., a political-cum-military alliance among the nations of Western Europe, Japan, China and others in the Third World. Only America can galvanize such an alliance, it is argued, and to do so the United States must avoid bilateral agreements or even bilateral negotiations, as these imply permanent acceptance of the Soviet regime and accord legitimacy to it. The ABM treaty, the SALT II treaty, and the SALT process itself-to say nothing of other arms negotiations-are thus seen to undermine the long-run objective of causing fundamental change in Soviet society.

Obviously, opponents of arms limitations typically find it in their interest not to articulate this line of reasoning; they prefer to debate technical points in the treaty itself, arguing that they support arms control in the abstract, but that a better deal should have been made. The reasons for this stance are clear: the specter of unfettered and open-ended competition with the Soviet Union, including a relatively high risk of confrontation and nuclear war, is not one likely to find substantial political support over the long term. The fact that the congressional SALT debate concentrated on technical questions, rather than basic issues like the implications of the SALT process for U.S.-Soviet relations, testifies to the political skills of the treaty's opponents. The importance of their ability to dictate the terms of the debate is magnified when the second unstated burden of SALT is considered.

It is widely believed in the United States that nuclear weapons can play only a small and tightly circumscribed role in foreign policy. Because of the tremendous risks they imply, the standard argument proceeds, nuclear weapons (meaning nuclear threats) can be utilized only for narrow and quite specific purposes. First and foremost, they serve to deter nuclear attacks on, or coercion of, the United States itself. Additionally, it is believed, the U.S. nuclear umbrella can be extended to a few other nations-primarily the industrialized democracies. And that, more or less, is that. It is true that beginning in the early 1970s some officials began to speak of additional purposes for nuclear weapons, as when discussing limited nuclear options, but this was strictly in a reactive context, to offset the presumed political consequences of growth in Soviet nuclear capabilities.

Some argue, however, that the threat of nuclear war should be integrated more centrally into U.S. foreign policy; nuclear strength could be translated into political clout in a positive and assertive way. Indeed, some would maintain that this has already occurred, and continues to occur, regardless of our declaratory stance. Ever since World War II, they argue, nuclear weapons in fact have provided the one trump card in the U.S. hand. From the two bombs dropped on Japan, to nuclear threats, implicit or explicit, during the Berlin blockade, Korean War, Quemoy crisis, Cuban missile crisis, and 1973 Middle East war, as well as other more uncertain occasions, the United States turned to the threat of its nuclear arsenal, when push came to shove, to protect its own security and the security of its friends and allies.

Faced with the impossibility, in a democracy, of sustaining over the long haul conventional forces large enough to match those of the Soviet Union-this reasoning continues-the United States will likely confront this necessity again. NATO doctrine itself ensures such a probability with its explicit reliance on the threat of first use of nuclear weapons in the event that conventional conflict goes badly. Moreover, the balance of conventional military power is turning so adversely against the United States that this reliance is more and more likely. Witness the recent tentative turn to nuclear threats to back up President Carter's commitment that the United States would defend the Persian Gulf from Soviet aggression.7

To the extent that the United States must rely on nuclear weapons, it is argued, agreements which seek to enshrine strategic nuclear parity as a permanent condition of U.S.-Soviet relations are misguided; rather, the United States must turn its resources and technology to the quest for strategic superiority. Not that success in this goal is seriously contemplated; none but the most naïve believe that such an end is attainable. Nonetheless, the argument runs, by placing itself formally in a posture of seeking nuclear superiority the United States would be demonstrating a willingness to manipulate the risk of nuclear war for political objectives, thus lending credibility to the nuclear threats implicit in its foreign policy. In short, only in an environment of wide-open U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition can the United States' necessary reliance on nuclear weapons to underpin its foreign policy be supported successfully.

An element uniting these two underlying strands of argumentation against SALT-implications for U.S.-Soviet relations and for the role of nuclear weapons in foreign policy-is that those adhering to these viewpoints cannot be satisfied by any changes in the specific content of agreements. From their perspectives, the adverse implications of SALT can be erased only when the very process of seeking arms limitation comes to an end, and its meager products are dismantled.


Obviously, those who oppose SALT for these reasons can never be counted among the potential supporters of future arms control initiatives. But what of others? Can a new coalition be created with sufficient political power to rejuvenate arms negotiations?

Rebuilding such a constituency would necessarily be complicated by the ambivalence which characterizes American attitudes toward the talks. Even among supporters, the purposes and potential benefits of arms negotiations have reflected sharply divergent perspectives. This is symbolized by the very title of the agency created in 1961 to plan and carry out these negotiations-the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, a title which emerged only after long debate, in a typical congressional compromise that appeared to give each side what it wanted but in fact gave neither the benefits of victory. For "arms control" and "disarmament" represent quite different approaches to arms limitations, with very different policy implications. Although obfuscation of the differences between them did help to secure a prominent position for arms limitations on the nation's agenda for a while, in the end it contributed to the failure of efforts to negotiate limits on armaments.

The theory of "arms control" is based on the rather modest notion that decisions to acquire certain types or quantities of weapons can aggravate political conflicts and thereby in themselves contribute to the risk of war. This is not to say that weapons decisions are a primary or even secondary cause of conflict; only that such decisions are one factor which influences the relative probabilities that political conflicts are resolved peacefully, remain unsettled, or result in war. It is assumed that one nation's weapons decisions are perceived and interpreted by other states, and that these judgments influence the latters' assessments of the potential military threat to their security, the likelihood that their adversaries intend to make use of that potential, and what weapons or military actions in response are necessary on their own part. Thus the initial decision and the decisions which follow affect both the "stability" (a key word) of the military balance and of broader political relations among nations, as well as the risk of war. Conversely, the theory continues, these adverse effects can be reduced, or at least contained, both through unilateral decisions to avoid deployments of "destabilizing" weapons and, more important, through international negotiations on agreements to mutually avoid deploying certain types of weapons or to place other types of agreed mutual limitations on weaponry.

Thus, at its root, "arms control" offers a technically oriented approach to arms limitations with a modest set of objectives. It accepts conflict among nations as an inevitable part of contemporary international politics and views military force as a necessary (and legitimate) instrument of national policy. It views negotiated limitations on armaments solely as a means of containing the risks and costs of political conflict. "Arms control" and military programs are seen as two sides of the same coin, both being means of enhancing the nation's security.

The limited objectives of arms control flow from its recognition of the fundamental political basis of international conflict, and its acceptance that essentially technical discussions about weapons can only reflect, not initiate, political accommodation. In the usual formulation, three goals are mentioned: (a) to reduce the risk of war; (b) to reduce the cost of preparing for war; and (c) to reduce the cost of war should it occur. In all three, however, success can come only at the margin. The purpose is not to abolish war, but to diminish the risk that war would occur. The objective is not to turn all swords into plowshares, but to create conditions wherein some resources which otherwise might be used to prepare for war can instead be utilized for peaceful purposes.

As this modest theoretical construct (of interest chiefly to a handful of defense intellectuals and military specialists) was transformed into a national political issue, however, these objectives and even the ultimate promise of arms control were sharply revised. Essentially, the nation's political leaders found in arms control a convenient means of satisfying popular demands resulting both from international circumstances and certain fundamental strands of opinion long present in the nation's psyche. These latter-inter alia, anti-militarism, with its concomitant desire to minimize defense spending, and an aversion to power politics, especially a fear of foreign entanglements-had dominated the nation's foreign policies (except for a few short-lived periods) until the Second World War. They remain important determinants of certain basic American perspectives on world affairs, and can become more or less so depending on events. For convenience, I will refer to those whose attitudes on world affairs are dominated by these sorts of concerns as the "disarmament constituency." Readers should be clear, however, that this shorthand refers to a far larger group than that small minority which actively supports true disarmament.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, concerns of the "disarmament constituency" concentrated largely on nuclear weapons. After all, at that time, the tensions of cold war confrontation in Berlin and elsewhere were very real. The dangers of nuclear holocaust, still at the forefront of concern for the postwar generation which dominated political life, were manifest through such phenomena as civil defense drills and atmospheric nuclear tests, to say nothing of the surviving victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Ten years later, in the late 1960s, the concerns of the disarmament constituency were far broader, its demands more strident, and its political clout far more impressive. Twenty years later, in the late 1970s, as memories of Vietnam faded, as increasing Soviet assertiveness revitalized old fears of Russian imperialism, and as events in Africa and Southwest Asia demonstrated anew the potential utility of military power, attitudes which motivate the disarmament constituency have again been subsumed by other concerns.

For those 20 years, however, American political leaders found in arms control a pragmatic means of satisfying the demands of this constituency-at least for a while. Thus, for example, as his Administration came increasingly under fire because of the slow pace of disengagement from Southeast Asia, President Nixon found it increasingly in his interest to emphasize SALT. In effect, the Nixon Administration said, "Yes, we know you are dissatisfied with what is happening in Southeast Asia and we are doing our best, under difficult circumstances, to speed things up. But, anyway, look over here. We have managed to isolate Vietnam from U.S.-Soviet relations and are making important progress. We are building a 'structure of peace' with the Russians, a structure whose centerpiece is SALT-the control of nuclear weapons. This will be of lasting benefit for your concerns."

This is not to imply that the Nixon Administration's SALT policies were cynically motivated or driven solely by a desire to ease the pressures stemming essentially from the war; simply that, because of the war, the separate effort to control nuclear weapons gained new political significance and therefore greater emphasis. Nor is it being suggested that only the Nixon Administration acted from this complex of motives. At times Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Ford and Carter all found political benefits in their support for arms control, and saw in their advocacy of arms control a means of satisfying political demands. Indeed, if anything, Democratic Presidents are more susceptible to the pressures of the disarmament constituency. For example, although his personal commitment to arms limitation is beyond question, President Carter obviously saw the benefit of a strong pro-arms control stance when competing for the support of the then-Mc Govern wing of the party during the early stages of his presidential campaign.

Regardless of who was President, however, these political ends necessitated the transformation of the limited objectives of arms control into first steps. The implicit promise was that the arms control process would continue, and that each stage would have more ambitious goals. In this way, the disarmament constituency could accept tentative and modest early measures; political support was exchanged for the promise of more ambitious undertakings in the future.

It is surprising that this deal survived as long as it did. The premises upon which it was based simply could not be fulfilled, and evidence to that effect soon became apparent. After all, the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty did not soon result in a comprehensive end to nuclear testing. Treaties in the 1960s to demilitarize the Antarctic, outer space, and the seabed were not soon followed by progress toward demilitarization of regions in which the threat of military conflict was more pertinent. And, most important, the SALT I Interim Agreement on Offensive Weapons did not quickly lead to more significant constraints on nuclear weapons as had been promised.

It took the SALT II Treaty, however, for the bargain finally to come unstuck. SALT II would place many important restraints on U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons, restraints which could significantly stabilize the nuclear competition and the balance of strategic forces, thereby contributing to a lower risk of nuclear war. Its features in this regard-limits on the number of warheads on strategic missiles, limits on the introduction of new types of land-based missiles, a special sub-ceiling on the number of land-based missiles with multiple warheads, and others-were readily recognizable to the specialist in arms control. However, the importance of these things was not nearly so apparent to the general public, nor to most politicians. What the latter looked for were the obvious-the signs of progress toward disarmament, toward fulfillment of the promise attributed to arms control 20 years before. And these did not exist. The treaty would cause only slight reductions in Soviet nuclear forces, and, in fact, would ratify an increase in U.S. forces. The treaty would not end weapons modernization, and thereby permit budget reductions-far from it. It would allow an acceleration of U.S. strategic programs and thereby larger expenditures on strategic forces. For all these reasons, the treaty disappointed the disarmament constituency.

The effect of this was not so much to lose specific senatorial votes for ratification as to make it impossible to organize a political constituency behind the treaty. For the most part, the Carter Administration's efforts to gain support for the treaty were ignored-not so much because of anything deleterious in the treaty itself, as because of its lack of evident positive attributes. Its importance was simply not credible (and certainly not obvious) to a significant political audience. As a result, mass support could not be enlisted and senators, for the most part, had little if any reason to get out in front of the ratification process. What could they cite in their home states as reason for their advocacy? That the treaty would result in "only" 2,250 central strategic nuclear delivery systems on each side? That, like SALT I, the new treaty was important not for itself, but because it would make possible future negotiations? After ten years of SALT, the promise of significant future gains would no longer wash.

Moreover, inflated expectations of the ultimate promise of negotiated arms limitations had the contradictory effect of stiffening the opposition. As the objectives of arms control were transformed from the modest goal of regulating the nuclear competition into "the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this earth," as President Carter put it in his inaugural address, the coalition of groups opposing SALT grew and hardened. Apart from the opposition already identified, others opposed SALT because its transfigured objectives directly challenged their personal and institutional interests. Obviously, individuals whose entire professional lives have been devoted to the development or operation of nuclear forces are likely to view these weapons in a rather more favorable light than was indicated by the Administration's policy. Still others grew disenchanted as they saw a certain naïveté in the inflated rhetoric. While both these groups may support negotiations which seek to regulate the nuclear competition, they are unlikely to believe that a process that aims ultimately to abolish nuclear weapons is either realistic or beneficial.

As the post-Vietnam retrenchment in U.S. military power continued through the 1970s, SALT increasingly lost the support it previously enjoyed from the armed services, from the aerospace industry and the labor unions which serve it, from the scientific and research community associated with the Defense Department, and from their political representatives. This was a crucial defeat for arms control; without the support of these groups and in the absence of prospective treaties dramatic enough to stimulate decisive political support from the disarmament constituency, arms limitations can never succeed in a democratic political system.

The regulation of international trade provides an analogy of some relevance.8 The strongest supporters of international trade agreements typically are those firms and labor organizations that are most dependent upon imports and exports for their livelihoods. Besides their obvious interest in liberalized trade policy, they see in regulation the benefits of stability, which permit effective long-range planning, as well as the avoidance of risks and costs of unfettered competition. Theoretically at least, those most directly concerned with the strategic competition could see similar benefits in arms control. Yet, since 1972, this has not proven to be the case, largely, in my view, because of exaggeration of the original goals of arms control and obfuscation of the differences between arms control and disarmament.

If efforts to negotiate limits on arms are to succeed in the future, policymakers will have to choose between two alternatives. They can define, structure and pursue these efforts along the lines of the original concept of arms control, seeking modest objectives, and enlisting the support of those elements of the government, industry, labor, and the scientific community which are most personally and directly concerned with nuclear weapons; or they can continue to blur the distinction between arms control and disarmament, seeking to reinvigorate that wider political constituency whose roots lie in considerations of religion, morality and the fundamental American antipathy to military power. The latter approach can succeed, however, only if the products of negotiations are more dramatic than those recently delivered. If this wider constituency is to be rebuilt, the benefits of agreements will have to be apparent, on their merits, to a large popular audience. As there is little basis in either the history of arms negotiations or in more recent developments in U.S.-Soviet relations to believe that such dramatic results are at all feasible, a return to the original concept of arms control is clearly warranted.


Ironically, the failure of the Carter Administration's arms control policy, and particularly the failure of SALT II in the 96th Congress, could provide an opportunity to modify and then revitalize the public's appreciation of arms control. This would not be easy; it would take considerable time. It would require the leadership of the Administration that takes office in 1981 and the support of those in the Congress who have developed a reputation for expertise on the subject.

Essentially, these political leaders would have to make clear to the public that no matter what happens in arms negotiations, for the foreseeable future the United States will have to take decisive and costly actions to rebuild its military forces sufficiently to offset the growth in Soviet military power over the past 16 years. Given that such a defense buildup is vigorously pursued, however, the extent of the effort required and the dangers implicit in the continuing competition may be moderated through agreements placing mutual restraints on specific types of weapons. If other nations agree to place specific limits on the size of their forces, for example, the United States may be in a position to accept comparable restrictions on its own forces. If other nations agree to retard certain weapons modernization programs, the United States may be able to slow down some of its programs to a comparable degree. If other nations agree to restrict the operational flexibility of their forces in a certain region in order to avoid suspicions about the possible outbreak of war, then the United States may find that it too has an interest in limiting the flexibility of its forces in comparable ways.

In short, if arms control is to be revived, policymakers and political opinion leaders should be forthright about the modest potential of even successful negotiations. Arms talks can reduce the risk of war, but not abolish war. Arms talks can reduce the cost of preparing for war, but the burden of military preparations will remain high as long as the international political system remains in its present form. Agreements that result from arms negotiations are not stepping stones to peace; at best, they can accomplish specific things in the context of continuing international political conflict.

In concrete terms, this means that the first step must be to rewrite and substantially narrow the arms control agenda. What is needed most is a clear set of priorities: a firm sense of what is important and what is trivial. Even in its early days, the experience of the Carter Administration demonstrated conclusively that neither the American political system nor the contemporary condition of relations among nations is capable of sustaining arms negotiations on a broad front. Some of the Carter Administration initiatives conflicted with one another substantively. All competed with one another both for the attention of high-level decision-makers and for the political capital necessary to move them through a resistant bureaucracy and equally difficult international system.

The next Administration, Republican or Democratic, must decide what is important and what is feasible and pursue limitations only in those few areas. Policymakers must be ruthless in this regard. There is a tendency to accept new objectives even when their prospects are perceived to be hopeless, as a means of pleasing constituents with actions that are considered harmless. In fact, however, the larding of the arms control agenda with foolish initiatives demeans those items which are significant, wasting time and influence, and casting a naïve pall over the entire policy, regardless of the intrinsic merits of specific items.

For convenience, the prospective arms control agenda can be divided into three main areas: arms control in Europe, U.S.-Soviet negotiations on nuclear weapons, and multilateral arms control.

Arms Control in Europe. The politico-military situation in Europe comes closest to the conditions necessary for the success of arms negotiations. East-West political and economic relations in Europe are relatively cooperative, and have been that way for more than ten years. With a few obvious exceptions, political systems on both sides of the demarcation line are stable; most economies are doing reasonably well. Ties between the two halves of Europe continue to deepen and to expand in scope. The fact that, so far at least, détente in Europe has survived the deterioration of U.S.-Soviet relations demonstrates the stability of the situation.

European political leaders in both East and West have considerable incentive to ensure that things do not change. Détente has a tangible economic meaning in Europe which it never gained in the United States. Détente also has a very human dimension for Europeans, as it facilitates exchanges, such as family visits, across the boundary between East and West. For East Europeans, détente has meant a relaxation of political and economic restrictions. The threat of war, which would rise quickly if Europe returned to more tense East-West relations, also has a more pointed historic meaning for Europeans than for most Americans. And, not insignificantly, West European nations-for the most part-are ruled by individuals who partly have built their careers on rapprochement, and by political parties whose ideologies stress the need for international cooperation.

Despite all this, the East-West military competition in Europe continues to escalate. Both sides are now substantially expanding their military capabilities on the continent. The Warsaw Pact, particularly in its Soviet component, grew somewhat in size and began to accelerate its equipment modernization more than ten years ago. NATO responded slowly, but is now taking important steps to expand its combat capabilities, by raising force levels slightly and sharply accelerating its modernization programs, as well as taking other steps to improve the efficiency with which the alliance as a whole makes use of its members' contributions. The nations of NATO now seem resolved to increase their military spending beyond the amount necessary to offset inflation each year. Over time, given NATO's far greater resource base, this would reverse the past trend in relative capabilities between East and West.

These continuing military buildups have an adverse effect on the political situation in Europe. At a minimum, they delay and make more difficult the strengthening of détente. More likely, over time-by contributing to a diffuse sense of unease and apprehension-they can actually erode the progress made in the past, thus contributing to new tensions and a greater risk of war. At times, specific decisions can have more pointed and immediate political effects, as in the case of the Soviet deployment of ss-20 mobile intermediate-range missiles and the resultant NATO decision to deploy both a new-model ballistic missile and ground-launched cruise missiles capable of striking Soviet territory. Should certain contingencies occur, whether civil strife in Yugoslavia, turmoil in Poland, or anarchy in Italy, the suspicions and concerns resulting from the continuing momentum of the military competition can make the avoidance of military conflict more difficult. Overall, it seems doubtful that political stability and détente can survive indefinitely in the face of unbridled military competition.

This is an excellent opportunity for arms control. Theoretically at least, given the relatively benign political situation, it should be possible to negotiate mutual limitations on the military forces of the two sides which can dampen these adverse consequences of continuing military deployments. Such negotiations would not erase the remaining differences between East and West but, potentially, they could confine the degree to which the military competition independently aggravates the political situation. They would not end the need for NATO to respond to the Soviet military buildup but, by confining growth in Soviet capabilities, they could moderate the burden of defense in the West.

There are three potential forums for such negotiations: the now seven-year-old NATO-Warsaw Pact talks in Vienna for mutual and balanced force reductions (MBFR) in central Europe; the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which previously negotiated and incorporated in the Helsinki Final Act certain measures to increase the confidence with which each side was able to view the other's military activities, and for which a review conference is scheduled to begin in Madrid in November of 1980; and the French proposal for a Conference on Disarmament in Europe (CDE), which has received some support from both the Warsaw Pact and the West Germans.

If these putative negotiations are each pursued separately, they are all virtually guaranteed either to fail or to produce insignificant results. Progress toward arms control in Europe requires a unified approach with the support of all members of both blocs, as well as the neutral and nonaligned states. Seemingly most promising would be a strategy that sought to terminate the MBFR talks with completion of the proposal now on the table-calling chiefly for modest asymmetrical reductions in military personnel-and then moved to assimilate the French CDE proposal within the CSCE context.

MBFR is badly flawed by its limited geographic scope, its too-long history, its endless debates over data, the refusal of the French to participate, and, most important, its emphasis on bloc-to-bloc confrontation. The talks have served some useful purposes-mainly, perhaps, in terms of their effects on intra-NATO consultations and procedures-but have outlived their usefulness. They require some sort of modest agreement to permit a graceful exit for all parties. The proposal put on the table by the West in December would provide an equitable, if essentially symbolic, agreement, and a convenient way to end the talks. It is now up to the U.S.S.R. to respond so as to complete the negotiation.

In the meantime, the preliminary steps necessary to fuse the CSCE and CDE concepts and inaugurate the new negotiating forum could be taken at the CSCE Review Conference. It may be possible at Madrid, in fact, to make more stringent the confidence-building measures already included in the Helsinki Final Act. More important, however, would be the creation of a CSCE working group on European security issues. Such a group could incorporate the essence of the French CDE proposal-addressing the broad definition of Europe (from the Urals to the Atlantic) and shifting from bloc-to-bloc to true multinational negotiations; the group might even meet in Paris. At the outset it might take up a number of additional confidence-building measures. If these negotiations proved successful, the talks could shift to the tougher issues of quantitative limitations on conventional forces.

U.S.-Soviet Negotiations on Strategic Weapons. The SALT II treaty obviously is gravely wounded. It has had such a difficult history, it is associated in a large part of the public's mind with such negative events, its politics are so bad-that any new Administration, including a second Carter Administration, would be reluctant to enter yet again into the maelstrom of congressional debate on the treaty. Yet the treaty will not disappear; some action will have to be taken, and the character of that action will have an important impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. The test will come early in 1981. The U.S. elections will be past; presumably, U.S.-Soviet relations will have stabilized, even if, as is likely, they entail a high level of tension and open political conflict.

Under such conditions, there would be important reasons to seek to preserve the terms of SALT II. It is precisely at the times when U.S.-Soviet confrontation is most acute that the benefits of SALT are most significant. Confrontational politics seem likely to be the watchword for at least the next several years. Reducing the nuclear component of the risks associated with such a situation could be a crucial plus.

Besides, the treaty places significant limitations on Soviet strategic forces. It restricts the number of warheads on Soviet missiles and the number of such missiles themselves. It retards modernization of Soviet land-based missiles. The pace and status of Soviet strategic programs is such that these provisions could be violated rapidly once the Kremlin decided that SALT was either dead or undesirable. Most Americans now agree that the United States must take major steps to improve its own strategic capabilities. These steps will take time, however. The treaty confines Soviet options at precisely the time when the United States would be most disadvantaged, the period between now and 1985. In the absence of SALT II's constraints on Soviet programs, the United States may be playing catch-up for far longer than is now contemplated, regardless of the size of the step-up in our own efforts.

Whether these considerations will be persuasive remains to be seen. The immediate need is for both sides to avoid steps that violate the terms of the treaty. If such a tacit agreement can be maintained until 1981, it may be possible to consider resubmitting the treaty to the Congress. Conceivably, the two sides might find it in their mutual interest to make some minor changes to the treaty, changes sufficient to take the political curse off the present document. Alternatively, it could be possible to devise some procedural arrangement to maintain tacit observance of the treaty while negotiations are reopened on a new agreement. There will always be a temptation in the United States, particularly if a new Administration takes office, to throw away SALT II and begin again. That temptation should be avoided. In one sense, SALT's current problems stem from this Administration's initial decision to discard the Vladivostok accord in favor of something better.

Beyond SALT II, questions about the future of the ABM treaty will recur. The key date is 1982-the year of the next scheduled review conference. Unquestionably, pressure will mount to scrap or at least to amend the treaty significantly. These pressures will be greater if SALT II is not preserved, but they will exist regardless, in view of new developments in relevant technologies, the ostensible potential of ABMS to facilitate the deployment of survivable land-based offensive missile systems, and the blood already drawn by some opponents of SALT-whose real target has always been the ABM treaty and its implications for U.S.-Soviet relations. Determining one's position on the question of whether the ABM treaty should or should not be amended requires evaluation of the potential benefits and costs of the new technologies, a comparable survey of alternative methods of accomplishing similar ends, and a political assessment of the consequences of seeking to revise one of the few major accomplishments of arms negotiations.

If SALT II continues to be observed, formally or informally, and if the ABM treaty is preserved, even if modified to permit defense of additional ICBM sites, consideration of the style and substance of new negotiations on offensive weapons may again become relevant. Too much must occur between now and then, however, and too much ink has already been futilely spilled on the subject of SALT III, to warrant such speculation at present.

In the interim, the U.S.-Soviet Standing Consultative Commission, a confidential body established by the ABM treaty, could provide a useful forum for continued discussions of the modalities of U.S. and Soviet behavior that could best preserve what progress has been made in the past, as well as options for the future if political relations thaw. These talks could touch on what is necessary to preserve the "objectives and purposes" of SALT II, the beginnings of a dialogue on the question of whether to revise the ABM treaty, and, conceivably, the types of national behavior that could most support chances for a future agreement to prevent the escalation of U.S.-Soviet military competition in space.

Multilateral Arms Control. There clearly must be a shift in emphasis from bilateral U.S.-Soviet negotiations to multilateral forums. There has been a tendency to seek U.S.-Soviet agreement as a first step, believing that once that nut had been cracked, wider agreement would follow. This has not only placed undue burdens on U.S.-Soviet relations, but has nurtured the fears of those who see arms control as an expression of U.S.-Soviet condominium, thereby aggravating the political problems already surrounding the negotiations.

Problems more appropriately tackled in multilateral, rather than bilateral, forums include those of nuclear tests, chemical weapons, and arms sales. These phenomena pose dangers to the security of all, not just the citizens of the United States and the Soviet Union. There is no reason why the United States should place itself in the position of demandeur on these matters, as is implied when it takes initiatives for U.S.-Soviet agreements preliminary to multilateral solutions. Indeed, unnecessary problems are often created when it appears that the superpowers are dictating the terms of agreement to less powerful nations, a problem faced, for example, in the recent talks to restrain arms sales.

The multilateral forum most appropriate for these discussions is the U.N.'s Committee on Disarmament. Recently reorganized, the Committee now includes all the nuclear powers, as China took its seat during the spring 1980 session. The United States can and should play a constructive role within the Committee, but its posture should be relatively low key. Separate U.S.-Soviet discussions might take place, at times, as on the details of additional protocols to aid verification arrangements, but these talks should be viewed as complementary, not as substitutes for discussions in the Committee or any working groups that it establishes. Moreover, such separate talks need not take place until it is clear that multilateral agreement is feasible. Some will argue that this proposal condemns these negotiations to failure. But the substantive problems that make multilateral negotiations difficult-for example, the reluctance of some nuclear powers to end nuclear testing-would not disappear even if the United States and the U.S.S.R. could reach agreement. Moreover, the faltering bilateral talks further impede other forms of U.S.-Soviet cooperation.

Others will fear that greater emphasis on the Committee on Disarmament would put pressure on the United States to subscribe to agreements that it would otherwise prefer to avoid. That argument too is spurious. There is no substantive reason why the United States, like France, could not persist in defense of its own perception of proper approaches to, and necessary conditions for, arms control, including-wherever appropriate-a firm insistence that any agreements include adequate attention to verification.


Judged by the standards of the recent past, this agenda is modest in the extreme. Yet what is needed now-and badly-are tangible accomplishments. After 20 years of grandiose declarations, absolute objectives, ambitious agendas and inspiring speeches, we need results-pragmatic steps toward the limitation of arms.

If negotiated arms limitations are to have a future, they need to return to the more limited concept which originally characterized arms control. In this heterogeneous world of sovereign nations, there are real conflicts-over land, over economic rights, over religious and political values. And there are real villains in this world as well-individuals dedicated to the aggrandizement of themselves, their friends, their nations, even at the expense of others, and even at grave risk of war. Weapons are not the cause of these conflicts, they are their reflection. Discussions about weapons cannot solve these conflicts; they can-and even then only at certain times-contain their effects.

In another sense, given the rhetoric of confrontation which now characterizes U.S.-Soviet exchanges, even this modest agenda may appear naïve. An acceptance of a return to more tense U.S.-Soviet relations, however, need not include the abandonment of efforts to contain the military competition at its most dangerous points. Given the extraordinary uncertainties of nuclear war and the unprecedented potential of nuclear weapons for destruction, containing the effects of political conflict, reducing the risk of war-even if only modestly-could be a crucial accomplishment. The effort deserves our attention, and it also requires our support.

1 This effort to develop an international consensus on ways to limit the dangers that civilian nuclear power programs pose for nuclear weapons proliferation resulted in a February 1980 report which temporized on the dangers of breeder reactors and fuel reprocessing.

2 A requirement for prior notification of certain missile tests was included in the SALT II treaty.

3 The Indian Ocean negotiations were last convened in February 1978, the conventional arms transfer talks were last held in December 1978, and the antisatellite talks were last convened in June 1979. No future meetings have been scheduled for any of the three.

4 Recent evidence that the Soviets may have been storing (or producing) biological warfare agents in Sverdlovsk stands as a possible exception to this statement.

5 The New York Times, November 18, 1969, p. A16 (italics added).

6 One is reminded here of former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director Paul Warnke's characterization of arms control as "an unnatural act."

7 Within ten days of the President's statement, U.S. defense officials made clear nuclear threats on three separate occasions. Although officials subsequently backtracked, coincidental flights of B-52 bombers directed against Soviet naval vessels in the Arabian Sea reinforced the message.

8 See I.M. Destler, "Trade Consensus, SALT Stalemate: Congress and Foreign Policy in the Seventies," in Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, eds., The New Congress, American Enterprise Institute, 1980.



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  • Barry M. Blechman, currently a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was Assistant Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1977 through 1979 and the first head of its policy planning staff. This article was prepared for the National Security Affairs Institute, National Defense University.
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