What Good Is Arms Control?

DEADLY GAMBITS by Strobe Talbott. Knopf, $17.95.
THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION has long been plagued by the accusation that it is not “serious about arms control.” No criticism is more infuriating to the Administration’s foreign-policy officials, even though they realize that Ronald Reagan was the first President since Truman to go a full term without signing some sort of arms-control agreement with the Soviets. From the outside the lack of an agreement looks like a failure, but to those on the inside it seems instead to be a demonstration of their seriousness. Who else, they ask, would be “serious” enough to resist the temptation to make an easy deal? Who else would be serious enough about arms control to try to turn the whole system on its head? In the dozen years before Ronald Reagan’s election, a set of tired ideas and old faces had (as the President and his strategists saw it) whimpered their way to two strategic-arms-limitation agreements, SALT I and II. The old ways were to be swept out, in a revolution that would leave America with a more hard-headed and upright defense of its own interests, while simultaneously advancing the cause of world peace.
Deadly Gambits is the story of that attempted revolution. Strobe Talbott, a Time correspondent whose previous book, Endgame, described the struggles over SALT II during the Carter Administration, has cultivated remarkable sources within the arms-control world, and he has put them to use. With its rich store of anecdotes, careful explanation, and graceful writing, his book is by far the most instructive account of how the Administration’s policies were made. Taken at face value, it is an unrelieved denunciation of the Reagan Administration, which Talbott depicts as a haven for fanatical ideas and intemperate men. But the book’s real message is less partisan and more discouraging than that. The conclusion that I, at least, drew from it is that we should not expect much from arms control at all.
The case against the “SALT process,” which was developed by conservatives whom Reagan brought with him into government, was that America’s obsession with reaching arms-control agreements put the nation at a terrible disadvantage. The Russians, stolid and single-minded, knew exactly what they wanted from arms negotiations, whereas American Presidents, subject to the will of an impatient electorate, broke down and signed unequal agreements so as to seem men of peace. The SALT' treaties, according to this reasoning, ratified the Soviets’ military advantage while narcotizing the American public into complacency about the Soviet threat. Therefore, many of the Administration’s theorists argued, it would be better to go four or eight years with no treaty than to march further down the road of appeasement. All of them contended that the United States would have to use those years to rebuild its own force, so that in the future it could bargain from strength and could therefore persuade the Russians to accept “real” arms control.
Those theories were put to the test in two negotiating dramas, each of which fills half of Talbott’s book. One drama began with a problem inherited from the Carter Administration: what to do about the new SS-ZO missiles that the Soviet Union was sowing throughout Eastern Europe. Time and again Talbott reminds his readers that nuclear policies are driven by symbolic, rather than purely military, concerns. The INF talks (for “intermediate-range nuclear force”), which concerned the SS-20s, perfectly illustrate his point. Any target in France or Germany threatened by a new SS-20 had previously been threatened by some other Soviet weapon. Similarly, the Pershing II and Tomahawk missiles with which the United States hoped to offset the SS-20s would add almost nothing to the West’s destructive potential. Anything they would be able to hit could already be hit by submarine-launched missiles, ICBMs, or bombers. Military leaders in both the Carter and Reagan Administrations were cool to the idea of matching the Soviet deployments, arguing that the Pershings and Tomahawks would eat up the budget and serve no military end. So remote was the whole INF issue from military realities that American officials barely noticed when the Pershing II failed its early flight tests. Talbott quotes Richard Burt, an assistant secretary of State, as telling his staff members, “We don’t care if the goddamn things work or not. . . . After all, that doesn’t matter unless there’s a war. What we care about is getting them in.”
The reason Burt and others cared about getting the Pershings in was that the SS-20s had created a symbolic and psychological problem. During the late 1970s, as Western Europeans watched the SS-20s arrive and saw the Soviet Union reach nuclear parity with the United States, Helmut Schmidt, of Germany, and other leaders began complaining that the United States might become “decoupled” from Western Europe. That is, it might stand by as the Soviets used their new missiles and their thousands of tanks to intimidate the Europeans, since the Americans’ only alternative to standing by would be to launch an all-out nuclear war. Moreover, the Europeans noticed that certain protocols to the SALT II treaty would have restricted NATO weapons deployed in Europe (specifically cruise missiles), not merely weapons in the United States and the USSR. This was soon worked up into another source of strain in the alliance. So as a demonstration of Allied solidarity and a vaccine against decoupling, the Carter Administration agreed in 1979 to the “two-track plan.” On one track the United States would deploy its Pershing II ballistic missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles in Western Europe; on the other it would negotiate with the Russians about removing both sides’ “intermediate-range” nuclear weapons from Europe. The Reagan Administration promised to proceed along both tracks, saying that once the American missiles were deployed, the Soviets would have no choice but to agree to remove their SS-20s.
Five years later the Pershings and Tomahawks are going in, more SS-20s are arriving, and the negotiations have been adjourned sine die. The collapse of the negotiations was an extremely complex process, to which Ialbott devotes more than 200 pages, but it turned on two great disagreements. The first was inside the American government, and it concerned what the United States really hoped to gain, A faction led by Richard Burt was mainly interested in getting the Pershings into the ground, as a demonstration that NATO had the will to carry out one of the few difficult decisions it had made. This group wanted the negotiations to continue, mainly because it would put a damper on the European peace groups that opposed the NATO deployments.
The opposing faction was led by Richard Perle, an assistant secretary of Defense whom Talbott depicts as having exercised more influence over arms-control policy than any other member of the Administration, including the President. On the organization chart Perle’s position may have looked weak; but he worked for a boss, Caspar Weinberger, who was innocent of the details of nuclear policy, was influential with the President, and was susceptible to Perle’s skillful manipulation. Perle eventually established his view as the Pentagon’s position in intra-government negotiations. To Perle, removing all the SS-20s was the only thing that really mattered; and if that could not be accomplished, there was no point in seeming to be reasonable or offering compromises so as to keep the negotiations limping along.
THE OTHER CONFRONTATION was between the Soviet Union and the United States, and it involved the legitimacy of the Pershings. The Soviets rejected any proposal that allowed even one Pershing to be deployed; the United States replied that the only way the Soviets could avoid the Pershings would be to remove all the SS-20s. Paul Nitze, the venerable American negotiator, worked out with Yuli Kvitsinsky, his Soviet counterpart, a compromise plan, which would have left a small number of each side’s missiles in place. When word got back to Washington and Moscow, the two governments competed to see who could repudiate the plan first.
Another leftover from the Carter years was the SALT II treaty, which the U.S. Senate had never ratified and which Reagan had denounced during the 1980 campaign. The Administration’s replacement for SALT, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, was START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. The difference in nomenclature reflected the conservatives’ belief that if American negotiators could be as tough and patient as their adversaries, they could persuade the Soviets to lay down their arms.
It took the Administration almost a year and a half to come up with a START proposal; now, two years after that, the START negotiations, like those on intermediate-range weapons, have been called off, even though the President made election-year overtures about resuming negotiations. As Talbott describes it, the proposals were undone by the two nations’ very different concepts of nuclear “security.”
The United States has built its nuclear force on the principle of safety through diversification: more of America’s nuclear warheads are aboard submarines or bombers than atop Minuteman missiles in their underground silos. The Soviet Union, for reasons of its own, has done the opposite. Most of its nuclear weapons are concentrated on large, multiple-warhead land-based missiles, including the monster SS-18. From the American perspective the Soviet decision is bad for everyone. It is threatening to the United States, since the moreaccurate land-based missiles might hypothetically be used in a surprise attack, and it is foolish even for the Russians, since it makes their forces more vulnerable than, say, submarine-based forces to an American attack.
The ultimate ambition of START, then, was to nudge the Soviets toward a force structure that Americans considered safer and more sensible—one that resembled our own. Unfortunately, when this idea was reduced to a specific proposal, the Soviets found it deficient in “negotiability.” The Soviet Union, notorious for refusing to discard weapons even when they were obsolete and broken, was being asked to dismantle the missiles that were the pride of its strategic rocket forces. In exchange, the United States was offering to sacrifice its MX-missile system, which did not yet exist and was so unpopular that it might never be built. Talbott quotes Walter Slocombe, a Democratic arms-control expert, as saying that such a START proposal was actually too timid: “Any administration that thinks it can get the Soviets to take down two-thirds or more of their most modern and powerful missiles should also be asking for the restoration of the Romanov monarchy and the establishment of Judaism as the state religion.”
ALONG WITH HIS conceptual assessment of the START and INF negotiations, Talbott offers an amazing amount of inside information about policy battles within the American government. Talbott asks us to take it all on faith—he writes in an omniscient tone and provides few source notes and little in the way of attribution—but it is obvious that he has been checking in with several of the major participants throughout the past four years. In most cases he has resisted the temptation to repay his sources by flattering them. For example, one strain of internal evidence points to Richard Burt as a principal source of information, yet Burt comes across as that standard Washington figure, the clever but graspingly ambitious young placeman who is loyal primarily to his own career.
Indeed, with the exception of Paul Nitze, the one person in the Administration whom Talbott seems to view as wise, this is a gallery of unsavory characters. Edward Rowny, the START negotiator, is presented as a reckless stumblebum. Eugene Rostow, Reagan’s first director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, is described as delivering endless dissertations on geopolitics that drive everyone else crazy. Nearly every page of the book contains an anecdote from the continuing struggle between “the two Richards,” Burt and Perle. At one point Perle bullies the Joint Chiefs of Staff into siding with him against Burt by threatening to bargain away their cherished bombers at the INF negotiations. Talbott obviously disagrees with Perle’s strategic views, but he presents Perle as a curiously principled figure, willing to deceive, threaten, or disrupt in order to advance the cause that is dear to him. In that sense Perle is the one American who behaves like a Soviet negotiator.
The most significant portrait is probably that of the President himself. By now everyone has heard that Ronald Reagan is not a detail man, but Talbott provides so many illustrations of his ignorance and his torpor as to raise uncomfortable, nonpartisan questions about who has really been in charge these past few years. Virtually alone among the members of his Administration, the President seemed not to grasp that the balance between SS-20s and Pershings was of symbolic, not military, importance. To the stupefaction of military officials, Europeans, and anyone else who understood that the United States already has many thousands of nuclear weapons dedicated to European defense, the President went on claiming in public that if the Pershings were not deployed, “we would not have any deterrent force on our side.” It was only after he had spent a couple of years in office, given many speeches about arms control, and endorsed the basic negotiating decisions that Reagan learned that the Soviets place most of their weapons on land-based missiles instead of on submarines. This elementary fact, of course, helps explain why the Soviets thought that his START proposal, with its tight restrictions on land-based missiles, was so one-sided. According to Talbott, the President did nothing to control the tong wars that raged within his Administration, largely because he was unaware of them. He was uninterested in the substance of arms control and could be roused only by the prospect of delivering a speech. He so fully believed his own arguments about the tonic effects of an arms buildup as to expect the Soviets to come running to the bargaining table, now that they had seen America standing tall.
At a hundred points in his narrative Talbott shows the Administration closing the door on arms-control agreements, either deliberately or through sheer ineptitude. At the end of his book he introduces a group of arms-control experts from outside the Administration who came up with a variety of more “negotiable” proposals as substitutes for START. Talbott implies that useful agreements might have been reached if a different set of ideas and personalities had been on the American team.
But all of his preceding pages carry the opposite message. Yes, there is a difference between people who hope that negotiations will succeed and those, such as several in Talbott’s book, who explicitly wish that they will fail. Yes, it is better for politicians to grasp the technical aspects of arms control than to remain ignorant of the essentials. And yes, there are arenas of potential competition, such as outer space, where negotiations might forestall a risky, costly arms race. Yet the buried message of Deadly Gambits is that in the main arena, the strategic balance in which two nations confront each other with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, arms control may not have much more to contribute. Each side has its own rigid idea of what constitutes security. Neither is willing to give up whatever advantages it has obtained. The Soviet Union has already developed, paid for, and deployed its SS-18s and SS-20s. Why should it trade them away for the hypothetical MXs and Pershings? The United States builds better cruise missiles and satellites. Why should it call off the competition in the very areas where it is ahead? The Soviets seem sure to catch up in cruise missiles eventually, as they did in multiplewarhead technology. When they do catch up, cruise missiles will look, from the American perspective, like yet another source of worry, instead of a bastion of American strength. There are enough chess players and strategists on each side to understand where the game is leading, yet neither is able to relax its obstinacy for a moment. The compromise that seemed reasonable to Paul Nitze and Yuli Kvitsinsky was thumpingly rejected by both governments.
As the world keeps hurling similar discouraging illustrations in their faces, the staunchest advocates of arms control have fallen back on one last argument to explain the necessity of their efforts. Surely on matters of life and death in the nuclear age, if on no other issues, two great but hostile powers can see their shared self-interest in surviving. Therefore we must not falter in our quest for arms control, as a step toward a safer world. Yet the lesson I drew from Deadly Gambits is that when the hostility is great enough, the areas of agreement dwindle away to meaninglessness, and do not help build larger bridges of understanding. Would an arms-control treaty have stopped Hitler? None of the agreements signed after Versailles did—nor, on Talbott’s evidence, will the SALT and START and INF plans prevent catastrophic destruction if the United States and the USSR fail to resolve their growing differences diplomatically. The failure of arms-control negotiations is a symptom, not the cause, of the worsening relations between the superpowers. When negotiations fail, we should worry not whether our leaders are serious about arms control but rather whether they are “serious about diplomacy” or “serious about peace.”