President Ronald Reagan has a historic opportunity to reduce the world's arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons significantly and to prevent the arms race from escalating into space. The deal that was almost struck at the 1986 superpower summit in Reykjavik is still within reach—a 50 percent reduction in offensive strategic weapons and an agreement to abide by the 1972 anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) treaty for ten years. During last December's summit meeting in Washington the two superpowers agreed, in effect, to disagree on strategic defenses. The Soviets rejected U.S. proposals to allow "testing in space as required" and to allow deployment of space weapons. The United States, in turn, rejected Soviet proposals for strict adherence to the ABM treaty. The compromise—a carefully worded statement allowing each nation to proceed "as required" on development of space weapons within the ABM treaty—merely "kicked the can down the road," as Max Kampelman, the chief U.S. arms negotiator, observed.
While the President must certainly continue to be firm in negotiations with the Soviets, he should not be crippled by the mistaken belief that we now have, or soon could have, technology capable of protecting us from nuclear missiles. If existing technology could meet this noble goal, bargaining it away in return for reductions in offensive missiles might not be wise. But independent expert opinion is nearly unanimous: at least a decade of research is required before we can know if effective missile defenses are technologically even possible. The Soviet Union and the United States could maintain the ABM treaty limitations without impairing long-term research efforts. However, instead of a deliberate, prudent research program on the feasibility of shooting down incoming nuclear warheads, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) has become a program for building and deploying a specific weapons system within the next decade.