Courtesy Reuters

Farewell to Arms Control

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.

II

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

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