The United States and the Soviet Union have resumed negotiations for another summit meeting. In contrast to the first encounter between President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev, if this meeting takes place it will be difficult to avoid the specific issues of strategic arms control. Both sides have recently advanced new proposals. At the same time, however, the United States has distanced itself from the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks treaty, which expired at the end of 1985. Thus, failure to make progress at the summit, or in the Geneva talks, could leave the two sides without any agreed framework for strategic arms control, except for the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which would then be in jeopardy.

President Reagan raised a political furor last May when he announced his intention to cease observing the limits of the unratified SALT II treaty. Congressional critics passed resolutions of disapproval and allies sent messages of alarm. They and other critics feared the decision meant the effective end of arms control. Whether the SALT decision will prove to be a major turning point away from arms control, the prelude to a new framework or a minor episode in domestic politics is highly uncertain. Even if it proves to be a turning point, there is disagreement on whether that will be good or bad for U.S. security.

Some strategists, inside and outside the Reagan Administration, consider not only SALT but the whole concept of formal arms control negotiations to be an obsolete remnant of the 1970s. They believe that arms control has diverted attention and distorted priorities in the U.S. defense program. In order to analyze the problems and potential of the President’s decision, we need first to understand how we got to the current situation.


It is ironic that it took the President nearly six years to disavow an unratified treaty that he had called "fatally flawed" and that, in any case, had expired in December 1985. Was SALT II so important? During the 1979 debates over its ratification, even its proponents pointed to its "modest" nature and the fact that it would not interfere with any significant program to modernize U.S. forces. Critics argued that the treaty was unequal because it did not cut Soviet heavy missiles, and the modest (ten percent) reductions did not do much to enhance U.S. security. As President Reagan put it last May, "the most basic problem with SALT II was that it codified major arms buildups rather than reductions."

How could such a modest treaty last so long? One reason, given by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1979, was that the treaty added predictability to the strategic competition which, in turn, enhanced defense planning. Moreover, even modest limits on Soviet forces looked better than any short-term alternatives. Without the treaty’s restraints, the Soviets could add even more delivery systems and warheads. In 1986, defenders of the treaty could still make the same argument. With active missile production lines and underutilized throw-weight on their heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the Soviets could add both missiles and warheads much more quickly than the United States. In defense of the President’s ostensible repudiation of SALT II in May, some Administration spokesmen belittled the extent to which the Soviets would add weapons in the absence of SALT. They argued that there was no reason for the Soviets to add weapons. But top CIA officials testified in 1985 that, while the Soviets would not necessarily expand their intercontinental attack forces beyond the level of 12,000-13,000 warheads (from a then-current 9,000) in the absence of arms control constraints, "they clearly have the capability for significant further expansion, to between 16,000 and 21,000 deployed warheads by the mid-1990s."

Another reason for the persistence of SALT II was its political significance. Polls show that American public opinion oscillates between twin fears of nuclear war and Soviet expansion. Since the 1960s, these contradictory attitudes have been reconciled by the hope that arms control agreements would gradually lead to a safer world. Arms control was the glue that held the central position together.

In the early 1980s, this glue began to come unstuck, initially because of worsening U.S.-Soviet relations and the non-ratification of SALT II. The new Reagan Administration added fuel to this growing fire with loose statements about prevailing in protracted nuclear war. In addition, many of the Reagan advisers made it clear that they regarded arms control as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Arms control was charged with lulling the public. The new Administration was in no hurry to return to the bargaining table.

The quick growth of the nuclear freeze movement in the United States and the burgeoning of the peace movements in Western Europe were signs of the public’s apprehension of a greater nuclear threat. The same Americans who supported increased defense spending when they felt that Jimmy Carter was not dealing adequately with their fear of Soviet expansion supported a nuclear freeze when they felt that Ronald Reagan was not attending adequately to their fear of nuclear war. This shift was not an indication of fickleness or inconsistency in public opinion. On the contrary, it was a sign that the public wanted both of its concerns attended to simultaneously. The new unilateralist military posture of the Reagan Administration could not sustain public support without some element of diplomacy.

By November 1981 the Reagan Administration rediscovered the rhetorical power of arms control. It proposed a dramatic "zero-zero" level for all intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe in order to maintain European support for the deployment of new American missiles within NATO. In May 1982 the President proposed deep cuts in intercontinental missiles. Negotiations were relabeled Strategic Arms Reduction Talks to differentiate them from SALT. At the same time, the President decided not to undercut the unratified SALT II as long as the Soviets exercised equal restraint. While proposing a new and more attractive spouse, the Administration found it convenient to continue to cohabit with the rejected suitor.

The new START proposal for deep cuts in Soviet forces did not solve the Administration’s political problems. Critics charged that it was so one-sided that it seemed to be designed more for public relations than for negotiation. Freeze resolutions were approved in the November 1982 elections in eight of the nine states in which they appeared on the ballot. At the end of 1982, it seemed that the House of Representatives was going to reject the new MX ICBM, a central feature of the Administration’s strategic buildup. The Administration thereupon appointed a new presidential commission led by former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and its recommended compromise to deploy only 100 MX missiles in existing silos, develop a more survivable small mobile missile and adopt a more negotiable arms control position helped to ease the congressional pressure.

Two other developments helped to relax the heightened public fears and thus alleviate the Administration’s political problems. First was President Reagan’s March 1983 proposal of a space-based defense. Whatever its technological merits, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a political trump. Rather than freeze weapons at existing high levels, he held out a vision of making nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." Second, his January 1984 rhetorical appeal for better U.S.-Soviet relations, the January 1985 resumption of arms control talks, and the November 1985 summit meeting with Gorbachev helped to reduce public fears of imminent nuclear war and restore hope about the future. The summit communiqué, calling for a 50-percent cut in strategic weapons, reinforced that optimism.

The subsequent absence of progress in the Geneva talks dimmed hopes that a planned second summit would occur in mid-1986 as expected. Gorbachev’s January 1986 statement, calling for abolition of nuclear weapons by the year 2000, smacked of public relations ("I have a quicker, cheaper way than SDI"). However, a new Soviet offer at Geneva in June restored some optimism. By dropping their insistence that American missiles and aircraft based in Europe be counted as strategic weapons, the Soviets brought the two sides’ proposals for cutting offensive strategic weapons much closer together. Further, by relaxing their call for a total ban on research on "space strike weapons," they removed an absolute impediment to progress in discussing defensive systems.

Basically the Soviets proposed a deal that links offense and defense by exchanging cuts of roughly 25 percent in missile warheads and 30 percent in strategic launchers (as defined by the Americans) for a commitment by both sides to abide by a strengthened Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty for 15-20 years and to limit research on missile defense to the laboratory. In a sense, the Soviets were offering to restore the symmetry between offensive and defensive limitations that was the foundation of the original SALT agreements in 1972, but which was later eroded by the growth of offensive systems. The Americans had previously warned that the ABM treaty could not stand alone. The 1986 Soviet proposal seemed to come to the same conclusion.

A number of problems remain to be worked out. The definition of acceptable limits on ballistic missile defense research will not be easy. On offensive reductions, the United States has proposed in 1985 that ballistic missile warheads be cut to 4,500, with no more than 3,000 ICBM warheads. The new Soviet proposal of an 8,000-warhead ceiling on missile and bomber systems combined, with no more than 60 percent on any single delivery system, would permit 4,800 warheads on ICBMs. The Soviet proposal sets a limit of 1,600 missiles and bombers; the Americans have suggested 1,250 to 1,450 missiles plus 350 bombers. The Soviet proposal is silent about sub-limits on heavy missiles or on total missile throw-weight, but U.S. concerns in these areas could be eased somewhat by the size of the overall cuts. The Soviet proposal allows long-range cruise missiles as part of the 8,000-warhead ceiling, but bans them from surface ships. The United States proposed a limit of 1,500 cruise missiles on bombers, but is silent on sea-launched cruise missiles. The United States has proposed a ban on mobile missiles, but many observers regard this as "negotiation fodder," since agreement on development of a small mobile ICBM was a central feature of the 1983 Scowcroft Commission compromise with Congress. Arms control optimists do not see these differences as insurmountable; they believe a rough framework (of the sort worked out at Vladivostock in 1974) could be hammered out in time for a second Reagan-Gorbachev summit near the turn of the year, with a full treaty to follow before the 1988 elections. Thus, reductions in the number of nuclear weapons may be within reach.

The optimists may prove wrong, and not only because "the devil lies in the details." (Verification provisions for mobile or cruise missiles will require cooperative measures that go beyond all precedent.) The real obstacles, however, may rest in the ambivalence of an Administration split over the value of arms control and its strategy toward the Soviet Union. Even if a deal could be worked out along the lines of current proposals, not all members of the Reagan Administration would welcome it. Further, the President’s personal ambivalence between his deeply anti-Soviet and pro-peace instincts and his strong attachment to a vision of strategic ballistic missile defense has made it difficult for him to overcome the divisions in his Administration. Past rhetorical battles—about arms control being "a part of the problem," about the inevitability of Soviet cheating, and about the need for new weapons—have left an entangling political legacy. Moreover, the idea of negotiated reductions runs counter to the unilateralist temptations of the 1980s.

It is also possible, however, that the skeptics have a point. Perhaps formal arms control is obsolete. The case for negotiating reductions of nuclear weapons is seldom scrutinized carefully. As Thomas Schelling, a founding father of arms control, recently wrote in this journal, "nobody ever offers a convincing reason for preferring smaller numbers. . . . Who needs arms control if economical and reliable retaliatory weapons are available that are neither susceptible to preemption nor capable of preemption?" How important is it to reach an agreement on reductions? What difference would it make if cuts in the 25-30 percent range suggested in the current Soviet and American proposals are successfully negotiated or not?


In a world with 50,000 nuclear weapons, many people believe cutting their numbers seems self-evidently good. Yet, many strategists are skeptical. Although they share the public’s concern about avoiding nuclear war, they doubt that the number of weapons determines the probability of use—fewer, they argue, is not necessarily better. Moreover, some of the most popular reasons for cuts are not compelling.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, unless one assumes major political changes, nuclear reductions may not save much money. Some cuts, if accompanied by limits on new systems, may save money on strategic weapons, but some could increase overall defense costs by putting more pressure upon the conventional force budget. Whatever their dangers, nuclear weapons are cheap compared to strong conventional forces. They account for roughly 15-20 percent of the U.S. defense budget.

There is also the belief that reducing the number of nuclear weapons reduces the odds of accidental use. However, the sheer number of weapons is not the major factor governing the odds of accidental war. The quality of technical devices such as electronic combination locks, redundancy in warning systems, and the development of special systems to ensure reliable command, control and communication are far more important than the number of weapons.

Whatever the probability of use, some people believe that reducing nuclear arsenals below levels that would produce a "nuclear winter" would at least prevent the extinction of the species and restore some sense of hope about the future of human life. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence about nuclear winter is too uncertain to serve as a base for precise policy conclusions about reduction of weapons. There is considerable disagreement about the generation, diffusion and persistence of particulates in the atmosphere. To the extent that soot from burning cities is the major factor in creating nuclear winter conditions, it may be that a few hundred weapons targeted on cities are far more dangerous than a few thousand targeted on ICBM silos.

The more compelling arguments for reducing nuclear weapons tend to be political. Reductions may help maintain or restore public confidence in nuclear deterrence both at home and among U.S. allies. In part, public concern is rooted in a sense of direction and trend—"we cannot go on like this forever." The key is to reverse the sense of inexorable momentum. If public confidence in deterrence is eroding and reductions would reassure the public, then such cuts would be wise. The marginal effects such cuts may have on strategic stability are far less important than ensuring a broad base of public support for nuclear deterrence.

Reductions could also reassure the American public about Soviet intentions, and reassure the Soviets about U.S. policies. Some arms control skeptics worry about the lulling effect of modest reductions and argue that only deeper cuts than those currently contemplated are worth negotiating. Some proponents of arms control also argue that only deep reductions of superpower nuclear arsenals could transform the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Reductions can build confidence, but if the real Soviet challenge is related to their willingness to take risks and to their assessment of the balance of conventional forces, such deep cuts in strategic weapons might build false confidence. Since the arms race is both cause and effect of the political relationship, it is difficult to separate nuclear cuts from the political competition and from the balance of conventional forces. Such balances and linkages are likely to be more manageable in a context of limited cuts or ceilings than of dramatic deep reductions. Cooperation based on reciprocity may best be built by a series of small, frequent actions stretching into the future. Potentially, a change in U.S.-Soviet relations may be the most important benefit of a series of reductions of the magnitude currently under discussion.

Reductions are also related in a complex way to slowing the spread of nuclear weapons. Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty commits the nuclear powers to good-faith efforts to negotiate nuclear disarmament. At the 1985 NPT Review Conference, non-nuclear countries accused the superpowers of not living up to this treaty commitment. In 1995, the treaty must again be renewed by a majority vote of its signatory parties. Some observers believe that renewal will be difficult unless there are some reductions in U.S. and Soviet strategic arsenals.

Perhaps the most intriguing but uncertain political argument relates to reducing future reliance on nuclear weapons. Indeed, the effectiveness of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative may depend heavily on offensive reductions that would simplify its task. Assuming a cost advantage for offense over defense, efforts to establish defense dominance in the absence of political cooperation could readily stimulate an unconstrained offensive arms buildup. Thus, a number of advocates of strategic defense have predicated their support upon prior offensive reductions. In a phrase, reductions are necessary to make the world safe for defense, which is then supposed to make the world safe from nuclear war.

The importance of this argument for reductions depends on the answers to a number of questions about defensive technology (how vulnerable is it? how cost effective?) and politics (how cooperative will deployment be? how will the Soviets respond?). Skeptics point out that even if one is optimistic about the new SDI technology and the political transition to its deployment, the equilibrium of a defense-dominated world may be difficult to maintain in the absence of considerable superpower political cooperation. This is because small permutations (such as improvements in the technology of offense or defense by one side) could have large effects. The critics of SDI argue not only that stability would be less assured, but that the assumed high level of political cooperation might just as well lead to reduced long-term reliance on nuclear weapons, thereby avoiding the additional complications and expense of a defense system.

How seriously one takes this rationale for reductions depends on how one evaluates these arguments about strategic defense. In the current uncertain state of our knowledge, any answers must remain highly speculative.


Many strategists warn that reductions which cut too deeply could be destabilizing. The stability of deterrence is an elusive concept, but it has at least three dimensions: crisis stability, arms race stability and political stability. Each would be affected if cuts were too deep.

Crisis stability refers to the lack of incentive to strike preemptively in times of crisis. Much depends on the vulnerability of weapons (e.g., of ICBM silos); further, the ratio of targets to weapons may be more important than absolute numbers of each. However, vulnerability is a matter of degree and may change quickly with technological progress. If both sides were reduced to having only a few weapons, in the desperate circumstances when a nuclear war appeared likely, the temptation to believe in the possibility of limiting damage by a preemptive strike would be increased. With many weapons, the degree of invulnerability need not be as great in order to discourage any such temptation. The deeper the cuts in weapons, the higher the premium on the invulnerability of those remaining, and the greater the perturbations caused by unforeseen technological changes.

Arms race stability refers to the lack of incentive for either power to expand or modernize its arsenal, and depends in part on reactions to the programs of the other side. But the phrase "action-reaction" is less accurate in describing this function than "anticipated action-reaction." With strategic systems involving lead times of a decade, arms race stability depends on anticipation of what the other side’s programs may be. Worst-case appraisals of how the other side might react to a given situation often affect decisions before evidence is available. The fear of "breakout" from a treaty or rapid change in armament levels can foster arms race instability.

The prospect of achieving a significant advantage from such rapid changes is less likely at high levels of weaponry. If the strategic arsenals were at very low levels—well below the 7,000-8,000 weapons that would remain after the 25-30 percent cuts in the current arsenals of strategic weapons on each side—the prospect of achieving significant advantage through rapid change could appear more attractive. Unless there were a higher degree of political cooperation and confidence, arms race stability would then be more difficult to maintain. Advocates of arms control argue that the very process of reaching an agreement on reductions will generate confidence and cooperation. To the extent that treaties embody provisions enhancing transparency and communication, they limit worst-case analyses and thus reduce arms race instability. However, if political or technological surprises were to shake that confidence, an equilibrium at low numbers might prove more difficult to maintain.

Political stability refers to the effectiveness of deterrence in reducing incentives for major coercive political changes. For example, the Americans charge that the Soviet large, fixed, land-based ICBM force is destabilizing (in terms of crisis stability), but Soviet strategists often reply that such a force is stabilizing because it frightens the United States, and thus discourages Washington from attempting political coercion or other adventures that might lead to a crisis and war. Some American strategists believe that a similar capability on this country’s part is necessary for the credibility of its extended deterrence. For example, proponents of the MX have argued that being able to threaten Soviet missile silos is important to the deterrence of Soviet actions that could otherwise lead to war. It is also argued that relative capabilities and numbers ("bean-counting") affect political perceptions and stability.

But political stability rests on more than relative numbers. It is also affected by geographical asymmetries that may become more important at low levels of weaponry. For example, the Soviet Union is ringed by states with modest nuclear arsenals while the United States is not. Soviet demands for "equal security" and compensation for French, British and Chinese forces would become more difficult to deflect if the Soviet arsenal were reduced. Conversely, the United States points to the Soviet Union’s advantage in conventional forces and its geographic contiguity to the areas crucial to world politics; the United States argues that extended deterrence in those areas depends on a credible prospect of nuclear use, not on a mere equality of numbers. Efforts to create credible prospects of use have often led to increases in numbers of weapons—witness the arguments for the MX.

On the other hand, proponents of reductions in strategic weapons reply that extended deterrence and political stability in crucial areas such as Europe are more strongly affected by factors other than numbers of strategic nuclear weapons, including relative stakes, conventional force capability and theater nuclear forces.

One of the remarkable points about extended deterrence is its persistence long after its critics (starting with de Gaulle) proclaimed its demise. In part, this may reflect the critics’ overconcentration on the strategic nuclear factor. It may be that the high stakes and the burden of risk are the most important factors in the political function of what is known as extended deterrence. Moreover, conventional and theater nuclear capabilities that prevent the Soviets from believing that they could achieve a quick fait accompli and present them with even a residual risk of escalation create an enormous uncertainty that discourages temptations to exploit geopolitical advantages. In short, the risk presented by reductions in strategic nuclear weapons along the lines currently discussed can be more than compensated for by improvements in other factors in the political equation of extended deterrence.


If many of the best reasons for reductions are political, many of the best reasons against deep reductions are strategic and technical. How one draws a balance between these pros and cons depends on how deep the proposed cuts are and how they relate to one’s definition of deterrence. Deterrence depends on some prospect of nuclear use, but how great, what type and how it might be affected by reductions is a matter of considerable controversy.

There are two ways that nuclear use could occur: deliberately or inadvertently. Consequently, there are two forms of deterrence. One relies on credible threats of deliberate use. The other relies upon the chance of inadvertent use or what has been called the threat from chance. The two types can be labeled deliberate and inherent deterrence, respectively. Those who believe that inherent deterrence is sufficient can accept very deep cuts without great concern. As long as there are enough weapons to pose a threat to cities and civilization, there will be deterrence. Those who believe that some degree of deliberate deterrence is also necessary have to look carefully at the manner in which reductions would affect the ability to threaten particular military targets. In fact, there is a continuum between these two types, and many strategists’ recommendations fall somewhere between them.

Those who wish to maximize deliberate deterrence often push weapons acquisitions that may not be very good in terms of survivability and crisis stability in the hope of making gains in the credibility of deliberate use. For example, in debating the merits of a small, mobile missile versus those of the MX, Under Secretary of Defense Donald Hicks argued that "more killing power could be bought for less money by buying more MXs." Senator Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) replied that the "MX is the cheapest way to build raw strategic inventory, but Midgetman is the cheapest way to build survivable inventory."

The issue of targeting affects one’s views of reductions. If one targeted cities only, one could settle for a few hundred large, invulnerable weapons. But as a deliberate strategy, the destruction of cities lacks credibility, appears genocidal and, if nuclear winter theory is at all correct, could be suicidal. On the other hand, a strategy of prompt attacks against Soviet silos may increase rather than limit damage to the United States if it leads the Soviets to a policy of launching on warning those missiles that might otherwise have been withheld.

The question of how much and what type of counterforce capabilities are necessary for deterrence underlies differences among strategists as to the wisdom of significant reductions. For those who stress deliberate deterrence, even modest cuts may remove the capacity to threaten necessary targets. They believe that deterrence requires that the United States threaten four areas: Soviet ICBM silos, the facilities supporting the political leadership at the local as well as central level, Soviet economic targets related to postwar recovery, and Soviet general-purpose forces. If deterrence requires such an extensive target list, then significant reductions will be difficult. But even those who believe, as I do, that inherent deterrence buys much of what is needed are nonetheless reluctant to rely on it alone at this stage in the evolution of U.S.-Soviet relations. Americans simply know too little about what deters the Soviets, particularly in a severe crisis. Soviet force deployments and doctrines indicate that counterforce targeting plays a significant role in their thinking. If maintaining some counterforce options is prudent insurance, then reductions must be limited to those consistent with such options.

The most appropriate targets for deterrence are the Soviet military forces that would invade Europe or other areas the United States wishes to defend. By threatening to destroy such Soviet forces, one threatens to deny them their military objective and to punish the Soviet military while leaving cities largely unharmed. The cities’ continued existence, moreover, provides an incentive to negotiate a termination of the war. Such countercombatant targeting will require improvements in target acquisition and retargeting capabilities, and something in the range of a few thousand survivable weapons. Even if one doubles the number to hedge against a Soviet surprise attack, a robust countercombatant strategy fits well within the 7,000-8,000 weapons that would remain if the current reduction proposals were implemented.


Not only are the current proposals for reductions unlikely to have significant negative effects on deterrence, but such reductions would help enhance the survivability of land-based forces such as the Midgetman missile. Though some of the benefits are modest, even modest gains are welcome. The largest gains are likely to come in the political area, both in terms of reversing the sense of momentum that worries the public and in improving U.S.-Soviet relations.

One can assert this point while also agreeing with the skeptics that reducing the risk of nuclear war and reducing reliance on nuclear weapons are not necessarily the same as reducing the number of nuclear weapons. For example, the shift from bombers to missiles led to a major reduction of weapons (from bombs to missile warheads) in the early 1960s. But it also shortened response time from eight hours to 30 minutes. Even a reduction in the number of destabilizing weapons (assuming agreement on definitions) could change the structure of military forces, but it would not affect the operation of these forces. It is the command, control and operations of these forces during crises that is most clearly related to the probability of nuclear war. This would remain true even after deep cuts. Arms control measures that affect operational practices and the actual use of nuclear forces might do more than structural arms control to reduce the risk of nuclear war. Moreover, political steps to prevent and manage crises may do more than deep cuts to improve the U.S.-Soviet relationship and lessen risks.

The most important measures are those that lengthen the fuses rather than cut the numbers. To borrow from standard terminology in nonproliferation, "timely warning" and "time for diplomacy to work," rather than the number of weapons, should be the measures of successful arms control and force structures. The United States might aim for stable, limited second-strike countercombatant capability. Beyond a certain level of cuts, the assurance of enough time and control to allow considered response is a more important avenue to explore than ever deeper reductions in numbers. One of the dangers of the deep cuts philosophy is the possible diversion of attention and investment from what ought to be America’s top priority—putting time for presidential consideration of options back into nuclear deterrence systems. But informal operational arms control and formal negotiated reductions need not be opposed alternatives; they can be complementary. In fact, it may be that the most important aspects of the SALT treaties were the provisions on open skies for satellite reconnaissance, agreed counting rules for various types of weapons, and the Standing Consultative Commission.

Nonetheless, the strategic debate will always be drawn to numbers because it is difficult to grasp other measurements and present them in simple political terms. Because they are a readily intuited index, numbers matter. Since a major benefit of arms control is political reassurance—of allies, adversaries and the American public—proposals such as general ceilings and reductions can make important contributions to security, even if the number of weapons alone is a poor measure of risk of nuclear war.


If there is no purely technical fix to the dilemmas of deterrence, we are forced to the realization that only a long-term political strategy of societal engagement and a jointly managed balance of power offer a real promise of escaping the dilemmas of deterrence and keeping the threat of war low and proportionate to the danger posed to the values the United States hopes to protect. After all, it is not the weapons that are the greatest threat. It is the hostility in which they are embedded that poses the greater danger. (Britain and France have nuclear weapons, but we lose little sleep over them.)

Given the secretive and autocratic nature of Soviet society, it is not easy to imagine a rapid transformation in the political relationship. But change does occur, albeit slowly. Gorbachev’s Soviet Union is very different from Stalin’s; a strategy of societal contact may speed the process. Contrary to popular conception, both sides have learned a good deal about jointly managing their nuclear relationship over the course of the past three decades. The increased transparency and communication stimulated by negotiated arms control is part of that learning process.

In that light, it is not too difficult to envisage a variety of negotiated deals in the current situation that would produce political benefits. But there are at least three major obstacles that the Reagan Administration has set in its own path. Fortunately, they are surmountable if the President is willing to work through them and to resolve the ambivalence within his Administration.

First is SDI. It could be part of the solution, though some officials make it part of the problem. There is little doubt that the threat of accelerated American technological military progress in space is one of the incentives for Soviet movement at the arms control talks. But to reap that benefit requires a flexibility that some within the Reagan Administration resist. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, for example, responded to reports of the new Soviet proposal by stating that "extending the ABM treaty, or doing anything that would prevent our doing all of the things we need to do to develop a strategic defense initiative, is something obviously we would be very much opposed to."

The dilemma, however, need not be so sharp. SDI does not have to be treated as sacrosanct nor as a bargaining chip to be traded away. In a sense, there are two SDIs. The first is the President’s vision of a near-perfect shield that would replace nuclear deterrence with defense. The second is the project to build an imperfect defense to enhance, rather than to replace, deterrence. As Harold Brown recently argued in these pages, the technological prospects for both are highly uncertain, but since the President’s vision involves technology that would not be available until well into the next century, his SDI is relatively easy to reconcile with a reaffirmation of the ABM treaty for some agreed period and a significant laboratory-based research program. This would also be consistent with a difficult domestic political situation in which 46 senators (including nine Republicans) have objected, for example, that "the SDI program is being rushed to a premature development decision in the early 1990s," and "budget growth in the SDI has outpaced the progress of technology."

In other words, it is possible to negotiate an arms control agreement that would allow the President to protect his long-term vision, but not if he allows the proponents of partial defense to use his vision as a stalking-horse for a short-term program that would inevitably erode or break the ABM treaty. As noted above, it may be that the only way President Reagan’s vision might some day become plausible is if the introduction of defense is accompanied by major cuts in offensive forces.

A second obstacle is the issue of Soviet compliance with the terms of SALT I and SALT II. The charge of Soviet noncompliance was, of course, the ostensible reason for the President’s announcement of the U.S. intention to stop observing SALT II. In the litany of accusations, three stand out: encryption of missile telemetry, the deployment of the new SS-25 ICBM, and the building of the Krasnoyarsk radar station. They involve complicated issues: Soviet exploitation of ambiguous treaty language in the case of the telemetry encryption; Soviet stretching of technicalities to argue that the SS-25 is not a new missile but only the modernization of an older model; and what looks exactly like an early-warning radar located well inland where the ABM treaty says it is not supposed to be.

What is striking is that the opponents of arms control have managed over time to move issues with minor military significance from the margins to the center of the U.S.-Soviet relationship. By treating these items as a litmus test of Soviet intentions and establishing their rectification as a condition for continued adherence to the numerical SALT limits (which both sides have observed), the skeptics have progressively narrowed the President’s options. This does not mean the alleged violations should be ignored; it means that the President should have insisted that they be seriously negotiated in the Standing Consultative Commission (as they merited), rather than politicized and implanted at the heart of the relationship. It is not too late to wrap them into a package of issues relating to compliance and verification that could be handed back to negotiators. Recent Soviet movement toward American proposals on the verification of mobile missiles is an encouraging sign that Gorbachev may be coming to terms with the U.S. position on verification issues.

The third potential obstacle is the rhetorical fixation on deep cuts. The danger is that it will be used by arms control opponents within the Administration to block progress on negotiation. Again, the President’s statements about deep cuts give a "hostage" to the skeptics who wish to block movement. Given the popularity of arms control negotiations, it is easier to oppose a proposal because it is not "real" arms control than simply to oppose reductions. In such an analysis, the best is used as the most effective argument against the good. Since the recent Soviet proposal falls well short of the 50-percent cut the President has advocated, it can be attacked on that ground alone.

There is also a technical dimension to the concern that the Soviet proposal does not cut deeply enough. By retaining 1,600 launchers and 4,800 ICBM warheads under this scheme, the Soviets are still able to hold at risk the 1,400 hardened targets (silos and command posts) in the United States. Assuming two warheads per target, the United States would have to negotiate a ceiling in the vicinity of 2,800 ICBM warheads before this problem would be removed by arms control. (In fact, such a ceiling almost certainly would have to be made even lower, since it is likely that the negotiations would reduce the number of U.S. launchers that the Soviets would need to target.) In other words, only very deep cuts would solve the "window of vulnerability" problem that President Reagan stressed in the early stages of his Administration. Cuts of that magnitude may still be nonnegotiable: the United States proposed a 2,500-ICBM warhead ceiling in 1982 and then raised it to 3,000 warheads in 1985. It seems unlikely that negotiations can solve the problem of the vulnerability of fixed silos.

However, this problem is not as acute as it once was. First, as the Scowcroft Commission pointed out, the window of vulnerability metaphor is misleading because it focuses on the vulnerability of only part of the American forces. After all, the United States maintains an expensive strategic triad of land, sea and air forces just so that vulnerability in any part of these forces does not endanger the whole. Moreover, if the Soviets place any emphasis on inherent, as well as deliberate, deterrence (and there is reason to believe they do), then scenarios of a perfect first strike against U.S. land-based forces that leave its submarine-based warheads unscathed are fanciful technical arguments rather than compelling analyses. Furthermore, the supposed political blackmail effect of an uneven capability to hold land-based forces at risk will be alleviated as more accurate (and invulnerable) missiles are deployed on U.S. submarines.

Negotiated reductions are not the only way to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. land-based forces. Investments in various forms of mobility are important. American negotiators should not be totally unconcerned about the throw-weight of Soviet missiles; they must calculate the number of small mobile missiles and the maneuvering space these must have in order to survive a barrage attack. The throw-weight of the Soviet forces becomes an important factor in the cost of the U.S. investment in mobility. Thus, reductions can help to make mobility cost-effective. But it is a mistake to judge the value of negotiated reductions solely on the basis of whether they are deep enough to solve the problem of the "window of vulnerability"—either in its hard-point or barrage-attack form.

In short, none of the three obstacles is a good reason for the President to forgo the real political benefits of negotiated reductions. Indeed, he needs something along the lines of a compromise foreshadowed in the current proposals to protect his long-term vision of defense and to maintain the current lull in the storms of public concern over the future of nuclear deterrence. For this, the President will have to overcome his own ambivalence and take back the hostages he has given to the skeptics of negotiated arms control within his Administration and party. It is not clear that he will be able to do this. If he fails, his legacy will be greatly diminished.


It is a current cliché that Ronald Reagan will be a hard act to follow—for Republicans or Democrats. In two ways, however, a successor may find it easier to reach some agreement on negotiated reductions. Without the same degree of personal identification and commitment to SDI, a successor may be more flexible about the scale and pace of the research program; without the rhetoric about deep reductions, a successor may see that major political benefits can be reaped at more modest and more negotiable levels than those that President Reagan originally set.

On balance, however, a failure to negotiate a new arms control agreement will leave a difficult political legacy. The militarily marginal compliance issues will remain in their central political location and will poison efforts to reach and ratify future agreements. The Reagan standard of very deep cuts will also remain as a measuring rod against which any new agreements might be judged. The SALT framework will continue to erode without a replacement. With it may go not only current limits on Soviet offensive and defensive deployments, but also many of the measures that enhance transparency and communication in the strategic relationship, such as the agreement not to interfere with the monitoring of one another’s forces, or the use of the Standing Consultative Commission as a place for quiet negotiations about compliance. While it need not mean there would be no informal or operational arms control, it is worth noting that the Soviets have been less eager than Americans to pursue such issues in the absence of formal negotiations. Thus, informal and operational arms control may also languish. The failure to replace SALT may have larger strategic costs than the skeptics realize.

The political legacy of such a failure could also be costly. In Europe, polls show a decline of confidence in the United States due to fears of entrapment in a war brought about by rash American actions. This will be exacerbated if there is a failure in arms control. The "good riddance" response that the possibility of a European break with the United States engenders in some Americans fosters, in turn, unilateralism—the modern expression of the old isolationist tendency that has traditionally bedeviled U.S. foreign policy. It is doubly ironic. Ever since 1945, Europe and Japan have remained the two great areas of technological and industrial creativity that could affect the U.S.-Soviet balance of world power. America’s extension of deterrence to these areas for balance-of-power reasons is the rationale for many of the strategic modernization programs. If the United States succumbed to isolation in the interest of such modernization, and therefore needed only to deter nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland, it could get by with far simpler military forces.

Finally, American attitudes toward nuclear deterrence may shift again in the absence of arms control, making a consistent defense policy more difficult to pursue. One cost of the President’s advocacy of SDI has been his remarks denigrating the morality of nuclear deterrence based on offensive weapons. In any case, polls show increased concern about the long-term future of deterrence. The third-largest church in the United States (Methodist) has condemned it. The largest (Roman Catholic) is reexamining its previous policy of accepting deterrence on the condition that serious progress be made toward disarmament. The concern with moral issues and the long-term future of deterrence is more widely felt than in previous upsurges of public concern. If the new magic of SDI loses its luster and begins to look as though it will not be available for a very long time (if ever), and if the old glue of arms control negotiations comes unstuck again, the center may not hold. The early 1990s may prove a very difficult time for developing the consensus in defense and foreign policy that America needs to remain an effective great power during a turbulent period in world politics.

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  • Joseph S. Nye, Jr., is Director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and author of Nuclear Ethics.
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