On November 23, 1983, the Soviet Union walked out of the intermediate-range nuclear force negotiations in Geneva and shortly thereafter suspended the strategic arms talks, thus closing down all U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms control negotiations.

For the next 12 months U.S.-Soviet relations were frozen. From Moscow, for years the self-proclaimed champion of détente and arms control talks, there was a flood of angry and hostile anti-American rhetoric, vows not to resume negotiations unless the United States withdrew its missiles from Europe, and cries of alarm about the growing danger of nuclear war. From an Administration in Washington that had taken office parading Soviet misdeeds and warning against the opiate of arms control, there was a steady stream of conciliatory gestures toward Moscow and assurances that the world was now a safer place thanks to the rebuilding of American strength.

But 1984 also proved to be a year of transition. After years of talking past each other for the benefit of Western public opinion, the two sides finally began, toward the end of the year, to probe and explore in earnest the possibility of dealing with each other again as serious negotiating partners.

In November, the resounding reelection of President Ronald Reagan and the apparent stabilization of Konstantin Chernenko’s leadership in Moscow set the stage for resumed negotiations. Precisely one year after the breakdown of the Geneva talks, Washington and Moscow simultaneously announced that U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko would meet in Geneva on January 7, 1985, in an effort to reach a common understanding on the subject and aims of "new negotiations" on the whole range of questions concerning nuclear and space weapons. On January 8, 1985, after two days of intense discussions, they agreed to resume formal negotiations on the basis of a new framework. A crucial branch point in the evolution of U.S.-Soviet relations had been reached.

A new phase seems almost certain to lie ahead in 1985, but there is deep uncertainty about the shape it will take. The uncertainty centers less on the preferences of the supreme leaders on the two sides—both seem clearly, though for reasons that diverge sharply, to prefer improved relations and reduced tensions—than on the capabilities of the political systems they lead to make the hard compromises that any substantial arms control agreements, much less broad accommodations, would inevitably entail.


The year of stalemate began with the collapse of U.S.-Soviet negotiations on nuclear arms control. The immediate precipitant of the stalemate was the Soviet walkout from the intermediate-range nuclear force and Strategic Arms Reductions Talks in Geneva late in 1983, but the negotiations had reached an impasse long before the walkout. And the origins of that negotiating impasse go back to the second half of the last decade, the waning years of the U.S.-Soviet détente. The climate of the U.S.-Soviet relationship had been increasingly troubled since the Angolan crisis of the mid-1970s. Prospects for improvement signaled by the signing of the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) Treaty in June 1979 were decisively dashed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of the year, which caused the final slide of the relationship into the trough of the 1980s. In the ensuing post-détente environment, neither superpower regarded the other as a sufficiently dedicated or reliable negotiating partner with whom to strike a bargain.

The initial Soviet reaction to the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan had been much less alarmist and pessimistic than might have been expected, given the harsh anti-Soviet thrust of his election campaign. In part, this was because the Soviets had despaired of dealing with what they had come to regard as a schizophrenic Carter Administration, so internally divided on Soviet policy that its ability to deliver on negotiated agreements was paralyzed, along with its capability to restrain assertive Soviet behavior. Some in Moscow evidently had the Nixon model in mind for Reagan—a conservative Republican president with impeccable anti-communist credentials, invulnerable to attacks from the right, likely to be more interested than Democrats in trade and profitable commercial relations, a president with whom it might be possible again to have a "business-like" relationship.

Toward the end of Reagan’s first year, however, when the expected "adaptation to reality" of the new President had still not materialized, the Soviet leaders concluded that the new Administration was so implacably hostile that it would not by choice deal with the Soviet Union on terms acceptable to Moscow. Revised Soviet expectations about Reagan were summed up well in a statement by veteran Americanologist Georgi Arbatov that has been frequently repeated or paraphrased over the years: the Reagan Administration "will be good only to the extent that it is not allowed to be bad, and safe only to the extent that it is not allowed to be dangerous." Having concluded that the Reagan Administration, left to its own devices, would be prepared to offer up little of interest in the arms control negotiations, Soviet diplomacy concentrated on other audiences. Moscow’s diplomatic and negotiating positions were directed at those forces among America’s European allies, in the U.S. Congress and among the U.S. public thought to be potentially capable of constraining the Administration’s freedom of action and of channeling its policies in directions less obnoxious to the U.S.S.R., or possibly even acceptable to it.

By the end of 1983, this policy of banking on an indirect approach to constrain the Reagan Administration had failed in its principal European objective, preventing the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range missiles. Moreover, it was also without good prospects in the United States. This was due chiefly to the Administration’s success in managing congressional critics of Reagan defense programs and arms control proposals, and to the failure of the Democrats to mount effective opposition to the Administration’s defense and foreign policies.

On the U.S. side, attitudes prevailing initially in the new Reagan Administration were decidedly unpropitious for successful diplomatic engagement with the Soviet Union. Senior officials in charge of national security matters assumed power believing that the military balance between the United States and the U.S.S.R. had deteriorated to the point where the U.S. bargaining position, in regional issues as well as in arms control, had been gravely weakened. Serious negotiations had to await major improvements in the U.S. military position vis-à-vis that of the U.S.S.R.

For some in the Administration this evidently meant restoration of strategic superiority, a goal so remote or unmeasurable that it might defer negotiations indefinitely. There was, moreover, a strong conviction in some Administration circles that the arms control process per se was politically incompatible with the primary goal of rearmament. Some argued that arms control, by holding out the false promise of security through cooperation, was equivalent to moral disarmament and would sap the resolve of the Congress and the public to make the sacrifices required to sustain the needed military buildup.

By the fall of 1981, however, it had become clear to Washington that the maintenance of allied and domestic support for high priority defense programs required the United States to reopen arms control negotiations in parallel with improving defense capabilities. Thus, the Administration was obliged, earlier than it probably intended, to initiate both intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) negotiations and Strategic Arms Reductions Talks (START).

Given the assumptions that each side brought to the table about the other’s purposes and political strategy, neither superpower considered the other to be the primary audience for the negotiating stances they developed in both INF and START. For the Soviet Union, an appropriate arms control policy was one primarily intended to weaken Western support for the Reagan Administration’s security policies without reducing accumulated Soviet military advantages or constraining future prospects.

For the United States, conversely, the appropriate arms control posture was one calling for maximum reductions in perceived Soviet advantages while avoiding curbs on promising U.S. programs. This posture had also to preserve the support of the NATO allies for U.S. INF deployments and to maintain domestic support for unilateral initiatives, particularly military ones, to counter the Soviet threat. The fact that the other superpower happened to be on the receiving end of the arms control proposals that emerged from such calculations was almost coincidental. As it turned out, in the INF negotiations which dominated the arms control scene, the U.S. side judged, better than the Soviet, the arms control diplomacy required for Western European audiences and played its hand more skillfully.

The breakdown of the Geneva talks in November 1983 created a catch-22 situation for Moscow. The Soviets had intended to use the INF talks to prevent the deployment of U.S. missiles in Europe. Having failed in this goal, Moscow had no incentive to resume negotiations, which might appear to validate repeated U.S. public declarations that the U.S.S.R. would not "seriously" negotiate until after the first U.S. missiles were deployed. Since the initial missile deployments had not caused the sky to fall as predicted, Moscow’s principal remaining leverage was the residual Western nuclear anxiety fed by the absence of arms control negotiations, by retaliatory Soviet missile deployments, and by a further worsening of U.S.-Soviet relations. Moscow was unwilling to forfeit such leverage by resuming negotiations without first extracting concessions from Washington that promised a satisfactory outcome and vindicated the Soviet stance. Thus the Soviet Union demanded that the United States withdraw its missiles or agree in advance to do so as a condition for reopening negotiations. The United States, on the other hand, refused to make any major concessions or to alter its negotiating stance in advance merely to induce the Soviets to return to the talks. Hence the stalemate.

Moscow’s petulant posture only served to deepen the quandary in which Soviet leaders found themselves. Absent actions they were evidently unwilling to risk which might raise a real danger of war, harsh Soviet rhetoric and their additional missile deployments (in Eastern Europe, in the U.S.S.R. and on submarines stationed off the coast of the United States) failed to generate the pressure needed to halt U.S. deployments. Further, the contrast between repeated assertions of U.S. willingness to resume negotiations unconditionally and the Soviet demand that U.S. missiles had to be withdrawn as a precondition to such resumption served more to underline Soviet intransigence than to build pressures for U.S. concessions.

Meanwhile, with negotiations broken off, the arms control regime defined by earlier treaties and agreements was fraying and eroding. In an atmosphere of great uncertainty about the future strategic environment, including uncertainty about arms control restraints, evidence mounted of possible violations of existing agreements by the U.S.S.R. In addition, both sides were pressing up against the limits imposed by the arms control agreements of the 1970s, and both were making extensive preparations for the development, testing and eventual deployment of a variety of new offensive and defensive systems, which, when completed, would breach provisions of several treaties.


In retrospect, the key event that set the tone for most of 1984 was a tragic accident callously mismanaged by the Soviet leadership in the fall of 1983 into a political catastrophe. The net political result of the September 1 shootdown by Soviet Air Defense Forces of a Korean Airlines (KAL) Boeing 747 and of Soviet handling of the incident was to damage seriously the reputation and credibility of the U.S.S.R., even in quarters normally disposed to give it the benefit of the doubt. This substantially eased the Reagan Administration’s navigation of the INF deployment decision through the shoals of West European public opinion.

Incapable by its very nature of admitting error in such circumstances, the Soviet leadership reacted furiously to the world outrage which the shootdown provoked, concocting and then sticking to a ludicrous story that depicted the KAL incident as an "insidious provocation" perpetrated by U.S. intelligence. In a statement issued on September 28, 1983, in the name of Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leadership sought to indicate that it had written off the Reagan Administration: "If anyone had any illusions about a possible evolution for the better in the policy of the present American Administration, such illusions have been completely dispelled by the latest developments."

In the final months of 1983 the Soviets dealt themselves a poor diplomatic hand and during most of 1984 they played that poor hand badly. In the words of one candid Soviet observer who condemned the Reagan Administration for driving Moscow prematurely into a corner by its initial charges of a premeditated attack in the KAL incident: "Our leadership only made a bad situation worse." In the weeks after the KAL shootdown, as prospects for an INF agreement vanished and the NATO deployment deadline drew closer, Moscow stepped up its inflammatory rhetoric, conjuring up images of acute crisis and of a war-threatening chain of events that might be unleashed unless the peace forces rose up to foil American plans to upset the European strategic equilibrium. "The international situation," declared Politburo member Grigory Romanov on the eve of the U.S. deployments, "is white hot, thoroughly white hot."

Within a month or two after the initial deployment of U.S. missiles in Germany and the Soviet walkout in Geneva, it was already apparent that the Soviet war scare ploy had failed. For most West Europeans, the U.S. deployments, the Soviet announcement of "counterdeployments," and even the suspension of arms control negotiations were anti-climactic. The Soviet-inspired war scare not only failed to bring the European peace movement back into the streets to disrupt the U.S. deployment or to bring down Western host governments, it may have made a deeper impression in the East than in the West. On December 15, 1983, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, who for three years had consistently depicted the war threat in the most menacing terms, cautioned that it was unnecessary to "overdramatize" the situation and that Soviet power remained strong enough to deal with any contingency.

Meanwhile, as Moscow persisted in apocalyptic warnings, Washington launched a peace offensive of its own, highlighted by President Reagan’s January 16, 1984, speech on U.S.-Soviet relations, which White House aides took care to describe as "an important shift in Reagan’s evolving approach to the Russians." That speech clearly signaled that the United States was prepared to open a new phase in relations with the Soviet Union. Setting forth a rationale for that new approach, the President said that the economic, military and political strengthening of the United States during the first three years of his Administration had improved America’s confidence and bargaining position so that Washington could "now offer something in return" for any Soviet concessions in arms control. Calling for a "constructive working relationship" with the Soviet Union, he implied, without offering any specifics, that Moscow would find Washington more forthcoming if it agreed to resume negotiations.

This bid to resume the dialogue was received in Moscow by a Politburo in the midst of a death watch over its leader and facing the certain prospect of a second Soviet leadership succession in little more than a year. By mid-January Andropov was in the final stages of his long illness and probably no longer involved in affairs of state. If Andropov’s authorship of the angry September 28, 1983, statement of U.S.-Soviet relations is in doubt, he surely did not personally give the "interview" published in Pravda on January 24, 1984, replying to President Reagan’s conciliatory speech. The Soviets claimed that the Reagan speech had changed nothing: the President had deliberately distorted the grave situation by claiming that the world was now "a safer place" and had made no new proposals. The United States merely wanted "talks for the sake of talks" to appease rightly worried Western publics. As Gromyko had told Secretary Shultz in Stockholm a few days earlier, the U.S. missile deployment had placed "the entire process [of limiting weapons] in grave doubt."

Less than two weeks after the appearance of his final Pravda "interview," Yuri Andropov was dead. The medical report issued by his physicians revealed that Andropov had suffered kidney failure and had been placed on a dialysis machine in February 1983. He had stopped making public appearances in late August. During the last six months of Andropov’s life, the Soviet Union had been effectively without an authoritative leader.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that Soviet policy at the time of Andropov’s death was being propelled almost entirely by the momentum imparted to it earlier when the outcome of the INF crisis was still in doubt. To change that course substantially in the light of altered circumstances would have required the decisive intervention of a strong leader, who was no longer available, or the gradual maturing of a new consensus among the oligarchs, for which there had not yet been time. Moreover, since the nature of Andropov’s long illness must have made it apparent to his associates by the middle of 1983 that a new succession was looming, any potential successor advocating moderation of the hard line against the hated Reagan Administration would have exposed himself to charges of weakness by rivals jockeying for position.

The death of Andropov in February and the election of Konstantin Chernenko to succeed him as general secretary (in April also succeeding to the presidency) provided the Kremlin with an opportunity to use the symbolic cover of a leadership change for diplomatic reengagement with the United States at reduced political cost. A slight easing of Moscow’s anti-American rhetoric was in fact evident in the first few weeks after Vice President George Bush attended the Andropov funeral and conferred with the new Soviet leader. Passed over in favor of Andropov only 15 months earlier, Chernenko had been more closely associated with the détente line of his patron, Brezhnev, than any of his colleagues. Shortly before Brezhnev’s death in 1982, for example, Chernenko had made a striking public defense of détente in a speech in Tbilisi.

Less than a month after succeeding Andropov, Chernenko hinted, in a speech on March 2, 1984, that there could be a new avenue for breaking the U.S.-Soviet deadlock. Side by side with the older, uncompromising and clearly unacceptable demand that the United States must withdraw its missiles from Europe if central nuclear arms control negotiations were to be resumed, Chernenko laid out a list of other, lesser agreements which, if concluded, could mark the beginning of a "real breakthrough" (perelom) in U.S.-Soviet relations. The list included a mix of well-worn Soviet declarative arms control proposals and other non-starters, such as a mutual freeze on nuclear arms, but it also included some measures such as ratification of the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosives Treaty that were in fact under consideration in Washington, albeit with addenda that Moscow would have found it difficult to accept.

Even Chernenko’s "second track" proposals, however, were presented in a context that demanded virtual U.S. recantation of previous positions as well as prior concessions merely to create an atmosphere in which Moscow might at some later date agree to reopen the central nuclear arms negotiations. Moreover, Moscow was so suspicious of Washington’s intentions and so fearful of an election-year Reagan Administration ploy that would draw the Soviet leadership into "talks for the sake of talks" that, shortly after Chernenko’s March 2 speech, the Soviet leaders in effect rebuffed an Administration approach to open a high-level private channel to explore the possibility of finding common ground.

Also included in Chernenko’s March 2 list was a treaty to demilitarize space, a proposal made by Andropov shortly after President Reagan’s March 1983 "Star Wars" speech, but now incorporated by Chernenko in a package of measures designed to suggest an alternate to the sterile Soviet demand for the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Europe.

In the months that followed, it became clear that the focus of Soviet attention was shifting from European missiles, which had become politically inaccessible targets, to the Strategic Defense Initiative and anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, which were not only the subjects of growing Soviet strategic concern but were also more vulnerable political targets than U.S. missiles in Europe. This shift was reflected in a surprise Soviet proposal of June 29, 1984, to open negotiations with the United States before the elections (on September 18 in Vienna) on a treaty to prevent the militarization of space, including a ban on anti-satellite systems.

The Soviet proposal was evidently designed to serve two Soviet purposes that were for the moment tactically complementary, but that may have reflected somewhat different longer-term orientations among Soviet leaders. The first was the familiar propagandistic objective of embarrassing the Reagan Administration in the expectation that Washington would reject the Soviet proposal out of hand. It was, after all, an effort to negotiate away a strategic defense option identified so personally with the American President while offering nothing in return in the strategic offensive area of primary concern to the United States. Moreover, the fact that Moscow began to publicize the proposal within hours of its delivery to the State Department underlined its propagandistic purpose.

Yet the proposal also reflected a growing Soviet strategic concern about the prospect of having to engage in an open-ended, enormously costly, possibly even risky space competition which a major U.S. space-based strategic defense effort was bound to spark, regardless of the ultimate feasibility of the leak-proof population defense envisioned in the President’s speech. As an indication of this Soviet concern, the June 29 proposal was probably advanced not in the expectation that it would be accepted, but in order to move strategic defense onto the U.S.-Soviet arms control agenda by laying down a Soviet marker and to stimulate an internal debate in the United States and within the Western alliance over the controversial implications of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative.

In any event, the prompt, affirmative U.S. response to a carefully reformulated version of the Soviet proposal caught Moscow off guard. It provoked a month-long exercise in public diplomacy that saw Moscow back-pedalling on its own proposal in an effort to compel an explicit U.S. rejection, and Washington making every effort to show that Moscow would not, as British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe put it, "take yes for an answer." On the grounds that space was already militarized by the existence of offensive missiles that passed through it, the United States agreed to discuss the militarization of space, pointedly refraining from adopting the Soviet description of the object of the talks as "prevention of the militarization of space." The United States also declined to agree in advance of negotiations to an ASAT testing moratorium and made clear that it intended to discuss offensive as well as defensive systems. The Soviets in turn progressively toughened their position by converting their proposal for a moratorium on ASAT testing which had initially merely been "offered" into an "integral component" of their position. Moreover, they specified that the subject of the talks was to be the prevention of military activities in space and not a regime for regulating its military use, and insisted that the talks could not include discussion of offensive systems which were the subject of another set of negotiations that could presumably not be revived until the United States removed the well-known "obstacles."

By mid-July the episode had ended, but the experience may well have conditioned the next Soviet decision, taken even before the U.S. presidential elections, to begin seriously exploring the possibility of resuming the arms control dialogue in a new framework. While the Kremlin could hardly have been surprised by the Administration’s refusal to make space weapons the exclusive subject of a new negotiation and to agree in advance to a moratorium on ASAT testing, Washington’s evident eagerness to resume the dialogue and its willingness to discuss strategic defense in a broader arms control context had also been made manifest. It is quite likely that Moscow’s experience with the abortive proposal to open negotiations on space weapons in the summer suggested the outlines of the fall-back proposal which Chernenko finally made in his November 17, 1984, letter to the President and for which the late September meeting of President Reagan and Secretary Shultz with Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko served as the symbolic bridge.

By then the Soviet demand that the United States must first signal its readiness to withdraw its missiles from Europe had receded into the background. It was evidently not mentioned by Gromyko in his meeting with the President, nor by Chernenko in a series of interviews with representatives of Western media in the interval between Gromyko’s meetings in Washington and the November 22 joint U.S.-Soviet announcement that the United States and the Soviet Union would begin discussing "new negotiations" on "the whole range of questions concerning nuclear and space weapons."

At the Shultz-Gromyko meeting in January 1985, the framework adopted for the new negotiations was essentially an elaboration of the U.S. response to the Soviet Union’s June 29 proposal, plus bridging formulas to make the framework compatible with the divergent negotiating interests of the two sides on several key issues. Negotiations are to be conducted by a single delegation on each side divided into three separate working groups to deal with strategic arms, intermediate-range weapons and space arms. (Secretary Shultz carefully defined space arms to include both those based or targeted on earth as well as in space.) Questions concerning all three categories of weapons are to be "considered and resolved in their interrelationship." The nature of the interrelationship was unspecified, leaving open the full range of possible separate, linked or comprehensively integrated agreements. Regarding space weapons, the objective of the negotiations was described as "preventing an arms race in space," an artfully contrived formula compatible in theory both with seeking to ban some or all space weapons altogether or only to regulate their introduction or further deployment.


As 1985 began, it was clear that arms control was not only back, but that it had resumed its place as the centerpiece of U.S.-Soviet relations. Once again, virtually the entire burden of improving the U.S.-Soviet relationship had come to rest on arms control. For a U.S. Administration that was distinctly cool if not hostile to arms control when it took office and for a Soviet government that only a year earlier had declared that same Administration to be an unfit negotiating partner, the conspicuous revival of arms control was ironic. But the reemergence of arms talks as the chosen vehicle for seeking to reverse the deterioration in U.S.-Soviet relations and to build a "constructive working relationship" between the superpowers was also unsurprising.

Arms control has returned to the forefront of U.S.-Soviet relations not only because it speaks to revived nuclear angst in the world and to mutual superpower concern about current and emerging strategic developments; it is also the only game in town for reducing the risks and tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R. It is true that conflicts in regions where U.S. and Soviet interests intersect are the most likely and immediate sources of potential U.S.-Soviet military confrontation. Morever, measures to control Soviet-American nuclear arms competition are only marginally relevant to avoiding U.S.-Soviet confrontation in the Third World. Arms control can contribute only indirectly by helping to create a political climate facilitating effective crisis prevention and management efforts by the superpowers in case of need. Even then, concern not to jeopardize overarching mutual interests in arms control has to be roughly symmetrical to be an effective force for restraint.

Hard as it may be, it is in fact easier for the United States and the Soviet Union to reach explicit agreements for controlling weapons than to agree on practical measures to regulate their inevitably competitive behavior in the Third World. As complex as the nuclear arms control calculus may be, weapons are tangible objects susceptible to quantifiable measurements that can be given concrete expression in treaties; agreements to regulate the competitive behavior of the superpowers against a range of contingencies and circumstances in the Third World that cannot be defined in advance can at best yield a set of abstract principles which experience demonstrates are more useful as vehicles of self-justification after the fact than as restraints on conduct beforehand.

But while arms control seems destined once again to be pivotal in U.S.-Soviet relations, it must assume the burden at a time when confidence in its efficacy has been badly shaken. Perspectives on arms control in both Washington and Moscow have evolved considerably since their confluence in the early 1970s helped produce the SALT I agreements. At that time the United States sought to use arms control agreements as a means to cap the growth of Soviet strategic power and to stabilize a condition of deterrence based on mutual vulnerability. The Soviets saw arms control as a vehicle for formally securing acknowledgment of the coequal superpower status they sought and for protecting their recent strategic gains against a technologically superior and potentially more competitive rival.

By the end of the 1970s, there was widespread disappointment on the U.S. side. Arms control had not stopped the growth of particularly threatening Soviet capabilities embodied in the U.S.S.R.’s large intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force with its increasingly accurate multiple warheads carried by the heavy throw-weight SS-18s and SS-19s; nor had it slowed the momentum of the multidimensional Soviet military buildup.

Especially in recent years there has been growing pessimism and skepticism in the U.S. arms control and defense policy communities regarding the prospects for and the utility of comprehensive arms control agreements of the SALT type. Conservative critics question the usefulness of the entire enterprise. The Soviets, they argue, will never accept meaningful limitations on their strategic potential and will seek to violate agreed limitations that become inconvenient. Moreover, they charge, previous SALT agreements had tolerated and even sanctioned a continuing shift in the strategic balance of power in favor of the Soviet Union and granted Moscow significant advantages due to asymmetries in the domestic and alliance environments of arms control policy making on the two sides. The very process of arms control negotiation is viewed in some quarters as counterproductive because it is held to undermine public support in the West for the arms programs required to match Soviet strategic capabilities.

Many supporters of traditional arms control are also disillusioned. Some have declared that the era of comprehensive arms control is over. Agreements of this kind, they argue, take too long to negotiate, are too quickly overtaken by new technologies, and frequently serve to stimulate the procurement of new weapons whose development is justified as bargaining chips in the negotiating process. Some arms control proponents, pessimistic about the prospects for achieving new agreements that meaningfully constrain or reduce strategic force postures, have turned their attention to so-called strategic confidence-building measures, such as the creation of special centers to help manage intense superpower crises and prevent the initiation of nuclear war by accident or unauthorized actions. Still others continue to believe that the combination of equitable, verifiable force structure agreements that limit and reduce the strategic attack potentials and unilateral measures to improve the survivability of the residual arsenals can contribute significantly to maintenance of a stable nuclear balance.

Despite these largely pessimistic cross-currents, the necessity of continuing the strategic arms control process seems now to have been accepted by a Reagan Administration which had entered office with a skeptical view of the whole arms control enterprise. At a minimum, the need to respond to the nuclear anxiety of publics in democratic societies and the need to maintain public support for a strong defense are now widely seen as requiring a credible effort to pursue comprehensive arms control agreements with the U.S.S.R.

The circumstances that shaped the Soviet Union’s arms control perspectives in the late 1960s and 1970s are also now changing, some of them dramatically. As a result, in the wake of the suspension of the INF and START negotiations last year, the Soviets have almost certainly been reassessing their arms control positions. They appear to be in a real quandary about how to proceed. The altered circumstances go far beyond the more immediate challenge raised by the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

The first major change concerns the link between arms control and détente. In the 1970s, arms control was the centerpiece of the U.S.-Soviet détente relationship, and arms control agreements seemed necessary periodically to punctuate the process and to maintain the momentum of superpower cooperation. Détente, in turn, was valued by the Soviets because it tempered U.S. strategic competitiveness, raised the threshold of U.S. tolerance for Soviet assertiveness in the Third World, and provided a more propitious political context for extracting economic benefits from the West. Since 1979, however, when Zbigniew Brzezinski coined the phrase, the prospect has been one of "arms control without détente." This prospect tends to diminish for Moscow the political benefits associated with the arms control process and to place greater importance on the real balance of arms constraints associated with any putative agreement.

The second major change concerns the relationship between arms control and the probability that the U.S. government will prove capable of sustaining domestic support for its strategic weapons programs. As noted above, the Reagan Administration’s perception of the relationship between arms control and the U.S. military buildup has changed dramatically since it took office. In 1981 the Administration’s disinclination to resume nuclear arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union was palpable. Rearm first, negotiate later from a position of strength, was the preferred sequence. The Soviet Union meanwhile presented itself as the champion of arms control continuity and of immediate negotiations.

By the fall of 1983, these positions were exactly reversed. On the U.S. side, it had become clear to the Administration that the U.S. arms buildup could not be sustained without a more credible arms control effort. The results of this altered environment have been evident in a variety of ways, particularly in the process by which the Congress has conditioned its funding support for several defense programs on adjustments in U.S. arms control positions to make them more "negotiable."

By the time the Soviets broke off the INF and START negotiations at the end of 1983, Moscow had concluded that an arms control negotiating environment was in fact helpful to the U.S. military buildup. Resuming talks with a U.S. Administration that was unlikely in the end to negotiate acceptable terms would only help secure congressional support of military programs of concern to the U.S.S.R. On the other hand, even if resumption of the arms control process no longer promises Moscow political benefits comparable to those of the détente era, other changes in the strategic environment make the military prospects for the Soviet Union without arms control considerably less promising in the years ahead than they were during the SALT years. The United States was not nearly as strategically laggard in the 1970s as is often claimed. Nevertheless, measured by almost any criteria, growth trends in the size and capability of strategic attack forces—as in virtually all dimensions of military power—have generally favored the Soviet Union for more than a decade.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, however, a series of U.S. strategic modernization programs—the MX, the "Midgetman" small ICBM, the Trident I/C-4 and Trident II/D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) carried on the Ohio-class submarine, the revived B-1 bomber, the advanced technology (Stealth) bomber, and Pershing II, as well as ground-, sea-, and air-launched cruise missiles—begun variously under Ford and Carter, and accelerated, supplemented or restored by Reagan, will be yielding new, highly capable, deployed systems. Thus while Soviet strategic capabilities relative to those of the United States may today be at their highest point, the U.S.S.R. in any future arms control negotiations will confront trends that move in the opposite direction and that could, if not arrested, threaten important Soviet strategic gains.

The Soviets, of course, are also positioned to proceed with a host of new strategic offensive and defensive programs. Nevertheless, their expensively acquired advantages in prompt hard-target counterforce and long-awaited improvements in homeland strategic air defenses appear destined to disappear as the United States proceeds with its strategic modernization efforts. U.S. fielding of highly accurate ICBMs and SLBMs equipped with multiple warheads will increasingly place at risk the large, silo-based Soviet ICBM force which is the very cornerstone of Soviet strategic nuclear prowess. And the still vague but menacing prospect of superior U.S. technology in such areas as sensors, computers, computer programming, signal processing and exotic kill mechanisms being harnessed in connection with President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative is bound to increase Soviet anxiety about the possible shape of the strategic balance in the years ahead.

The Soviets could reach a pessimistic assessment of the trends in the strategic nuclear balance and of the high costs and risks that a more competitive U.S. adversary would be likely to impose in an unregulated environment. Such a conclusion could conceivably make Moscow more amenable than in the past to arms control agreements that required the U.S.S.R. to accept substantial reductions in high-value forces in order to constrain the most threatening U.S. programs.

Ironically, a more positive Soviet assessment of other aspects of the military balance could reinforce Soviet interest in considering such trade-offs at the strategic nuclear level. Advancing technology and tougher U.S. competition make the pursuit of strategic superiority, or of some politically meaningful edge, more difficult and costly for the Soviet Union. The perception that the U.S.S.R. enjoys such an advantage, however, may now seem less vital for Moscow’s grand strategy than in the past. The large-scale buildup of Soviet intercontinental nuclear capabilities has been accompanied by an even more costly modernization and expansion of Soviet conventional forces, especially for conducting rapid offensive operations in Europe and the Far East. Since the mid-1970s, the Soviet buildup has also been marked by the acquisition of improved Soviet long-range and battlefield theater nuclear forces for potential employment in both major theaters.

As a consequence of this enhancement of long-standing Soviet conventional superiority and the trumping of U.S. nuclear options in the theater, the political and military burdens that have heretofore been borne by Soviet forces designed for central nuclear war have been eased. To permit superior Soviet forces to prevail militarily in the theater, or, more to the point, to achieve dominance of the European security arena politically in peacetime, Soviet intercontinental-range forces now need only be large and capable enough to neutralize those of the United States.

Repeated Soviet attempts to gain Western adherence to a pledge of no-first-use of nuclear weapons are consistent with this perspective. The self-serving political purposes of the Soviet Union’s unilateral pledge not to use nuclear weapons first are obvious; the doctrine of no-first-use may very well also reflect Soviet strategic preferences under the condition of Soviet escalation dominance at all levels below that of general nuclear war. To the extent this may be true, Soviet leaders in the future may be more willing to trade off some existing Soviet strategic nuclear advantages, likely in any case to be eroded in the years ahead, in exchange for constraints on new U.S. programs that would insure against the rejuvenation and significant expansion of U.S. strategic offensive and defensive capabilities.


Even assuming that evolving U.S. and Soviet incentives to pursue arms control have now reached the point where there is sufficient overlap to sustain a determined search for common ground, the obstacles to agreement are formidable, technically more daunting than they were in 1981. The old issues remain: what to do about Soviet advantages in ballistic missile throw-weight; how to handle sea-launched cruise missiles, the Soviet Backfire bomber, and British and French nuclear forces; how to cap the U.S. potential for deploying cruise missiles on bombers. Also, the old problem of verification has been further exacerbated in recent years by testing or deployment of new weapons for which verifiable limitations will now be extremely difficult to devise (e.g., cruise missiles and mobile ICBMs).

The basic Euromissile issues remain technically unchanged since the breakdown of negotiations. But the major political uncertainty that stalemated the negotiations and dictated the grandstanding tactics of both sides has now been resolved: the NATO allies proved capable in the absence of an arms agreement and under severe domestic pressure of beginning their planned deployment of new U.S. missiles. If there are sufficiently strong incentives on both sides now to get on with the negotiations, a formula can no doubt be found that holds open the possibility of eventual withdrawal, but permits negotiations meanwhile to go forward.

The most important new development is the emergence of strategic defense as a central issue in the U.S.-Soviet arms dialogue. Strategic defense has been advanced by the Reagan Administration from a remote technical possibility to an active, high-profile technology program with a conditional decision to consider deploying a full-scale ballistic missile defense system; as in the early 1970s, it has been inevitably linked with negotiations on strategic offensive forces, a link formalized in the January 8, 1985, U.S.-Soviet agreement. But the formula in that communiqué merely provides that nuclear and space arms questions are to be "considered and resolved in their interrelationship," leaving it to the parties to work out the nature of the interrelationship during the negotiations. The course of the U.S.-Soviet search for new agreements is almost certain to be dominated in its opening phase by an effort to find an acceptable common approach to defining that relationship.

The issue has become key to a debate in Washington between two distinct alternative strategies not only for arms control but for dealing generally with the Soviet Union during President Reagan’s second term. Both approaches proceed from the common premise that a favorable shift is occurring for the United States in what the Soviets call the global correlation of forces, but different policy conclusions are drawn from this assessment.

One strategy would call for the United States to take an essentially uncompromising stand on the full range of issues, making at most only marginal, essentially cosmetic adjustments, designed not so much to enhance the negotiability of U.S. positions per se as to manage domestic and alliance political concerns. In this view, American negotiating positions developed in 1982-1983 remain basically sound. Key U.S. military programs—ground-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles, ASAT testing, the B-1, the Stealth bomber, the Trident II submarine-launched missiles and, even if precariously, the MX—are all moving forward. Superior U.S. technology in areas such as "stealthy" weapons and in the various elements that might be developed on the way to a space-based ballistic missile defense system offers the prospect of shifting the correlation of military forces in favor of the United States. But this is prospective; in the short run, the momentum of past investments still favors the Soviets.

Time, it is said, will be on Washington’s side, and the United States should meanwhile hang tough. The Soviets will eventually have to accede to American terms or, in the absence of an agreement, the United States will steadily gain in the competition while the Soviet system will continue to erode. Meanwhile the U.S. bargaining position will continue to improve. Agreements that pursue lesser goals, adherents of this point of view argue, would not serve U.S. security interests. While seeking generally to protect U.S. strategic programs from arms control constraints, advocates of this viewpoint are most determined to protect U.S. long-term options for proceeding with the Strategic Defense Initiative by keeping it out of the negotiations.

An alternative strategy holds that the United States should take the lead in exploring ways to move the stalled nuclear arms control process. Partisans of this view generally believe that a sustained state of high tension between the United States and the Soviet Union is potentially dangerous and surely corrosive to the Western alliance if the United States is believed to be at fault. A credible attempt at arms control negotiations is held necessary to sustain public and congressional support for the Administration’s large-scale armaments program.

Advocates of this view tend also to believe (like those who favor the first strategy) that the correlation of forces is indeed shifting against the Soviet Union, but prefer to negotiate from that improved position now, rather than gamble on the outcome of a totally unregulated arms competition of enormous and possibly not sustainable cost, incalculable risk and indefinite duration. Soviet anxiety about an intensified new round of strategic arms competition is held to provide an opportunity for inducing the U.S.S.R. to consider trade-offs in strategic weapons negotiations, such as cuts in the Soviet advantage in heavy missiles in return for substantial limits on U.S. bombers and air-launched cruise missiles, a possible compromise in intermediate-range weapons along the lines of the abortive "walk in the woods," and, as far as space weapons are concerned, the opening of talks on perhaps a short-term moratorium on ASAT weapons.

It is important to note that there are, as yet, no indications that adherents of this viewpoint or others in the Reagan Administration are prepared to constrain substantially, much less to forego altogether, long-term options for space-based missile defense. Some may, however, be favorably inclined toward supporting a long-term exploratory technology program in this area while agreeing not to undertake any flight testing or so-called intermediate deployments of space-based missile defense systems designed to raise Soviet uncertainties about their ability successfully to attack U.S. offensive capabilities. Conceivably, in this view, the imposition of long-term constraints on America’s ballistic missile defense potential might in time become an acceptable option in return for very substantial constraints on Soviet intercontinental attack capabilities.

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  • Arnold L. Horelick is Director of the Rand/UCLA Center for the Study of Soviet International Behavior and served as National Intelligence Officer for the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe in Washington, D.C., from 1977 to 1980. Portions of this article draw heavily on a paper by the writer and Edward L. Warner III (_U.S.-Soviet Nuclear Arms Control: The Next Phase_) presented on October 19, 1984, at a conference on U.S.-Soviet relations sponsored by the Rand/UCLA Center for the Study of Soviet International Behavior. The writer wishes to acknowledge the contribution of his colleague, Mr. Warner. Copyright © 1985 by Arnold Horelick.
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