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Trying to reduce a permanent state of feverish tension

Globe and Mail Update

The history of arms control is unpromising. Prior to the Second World War, the principal agreements were limitations on the number and tonnages of battleships. Despite the comparative simplicity of verifying the size of such large vessels, most parties to those pacts cheated, except the Japanese, who had the grace to renounce the Washington agreements of 1923 before constructing the two largest battleships in history.

The first Strategic Arms Limitations Talks agreement (SALT 1) in 1972 was an admirable effort by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to stabilize relations with the Soviet Union, de-emphasize Vietnam, re-elect the President, and accustom the American public to the long-drawn trials of the superpower minuet. (The United States had not really had to practice diplomacy, as most countries would have defined it, for nearly two centuries prior to that, after Franklin and Jefferson padded around Europe drumming up support for the revolution. One hundred and fifty years of isolationism followed by soaring pre-eminence in its cold war alliance systems made U.S. diplomacy more a matter of information than of negotiation.)

The first SALT agreements attempted to halt the erosion of the U.S. strategic position, which arose from the grievous Kennedy-Johnson blunders of pouring military resources into Vietnam and assuming that a unilateral missile development and deployment standstill would cause the Russians to achieve parity and rest on their nuclear oars. In fact, of course, the Russians blinked at their good fortune and responded to U.S. restraint with the greatest peacetime military buildup in the history of the world, outspending the United States on nuclear arms by $250 billion in the 1970s, achieving a preponderance in deliverable nuclear capacity of between three and four to one, and narrowing the technological gap in delivery systems. SALT I counted launchers rather than speed, accuracy, throw-weight, relaunch capacity, warheads, or interceptability, and was a good beginning, but not a great success.

SALT II (signed in 1979) was an unequal agreement that was deservedly left unratified by the U.S. Senate. Serious strategic analysts in the United States, such as Kissinger and Senator Sam Nunn, endorsed it only conditionally upon massive defence spending increases.

The doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) has lost many of its former adherents. It holds that a casus belli of one of the superpowers against the other will bring, and be discouraged by, an unlimited mutual assault upon civilian populations, which are thus reciprocally held hostage.

Few people today consider it credible or desirable that the superpowers entertain hostilities that would destroy much or all of the world's life because of a fracas at the fringe of their spheres of influence, even a vital one such as Central Europe or the Middle East. That fact renders more vivid the spectre of conventional war, which, as two world wars have demonstrated, can produce tens of millions of deaths and cumulative destruction at nuclear levels. It also leads to a lot of anxious war-gaming in the European theatre, where the Warsaw Pact has an advantage over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of two to one in military aircraft and artillery pieces, four to one in anti-tank guns and surface-missile launchers and the astonishing total of 46,000 tanks (Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 with 3,000) to 17,000 for NATO. Even adding the French and Spanish to NATO and deducting the satellites from the Warsaw totals, those figures are disquieting. MAD raises continuous worries about "windows of vulnerability" to a first strike, and to preserve an invulnerable deterrent capability the proverbial genie will always be popping out of the bottle in rather unverifiable forms such as "midgetman" portable ICBMs, undetectable ground-hugging cruise missiles and more accurate submarine-launched ICBMs. The sub-carried missiles have been, up to now, too inaccurate to pinpoint on military or command control targets, but could be relied upon to hit and devastate metropolitan areas. Hence the notional validity of V.S. concerns that in the event of a Russian first strike against U.S. ground-launched ICBMs an emasculated U.S. defence establishment would be left with the choice of surrender (i.e. no retaliation), or suicide by an attack on Soviet cities that would depopulate that country but leave the surviving Russian garrison with a twilight capacity to return nuclear destruction on the American people.

That kind of ghoulish scenario, far- fetched but not totally implausible, exposes the unimportance of the truism that "both sides have the nuclear destructive power to blow up the world several times over," likely correct but practically irrelevant. Speed and accuracy of delivery and survivability of deterrent power are more important criteria than simple megatonnage, which is a principal reason for the marked decline in the number of warheads in the U.S. arsenal in the past 20 years.

One of MAD's many ironies is that it is most fanatically defended by exactly those elements that are most demonstrative about the dangers of nuclear war (apart from the unilateral-disarmament quacks). It is becoming almost as complicated to assure survival of a precise retaliatory capacity as to attempt a full national anti-missile defence. And President Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) is controversial but timely. (Only his more perfervid adversaries still derisively call it "Star Wars".) The program is a plan to research a concentrated-beam (laser), space-based, non-nuclear defensive system that would detect and destroy approaching missiles in flight at high altitudes without, it is hoped, detonating them. It is the prospect of such a defence that has brought the Russians back to Geneva 15 months after their bombastic suspension of the intermediate- and strategic-missile talks. In the United States, debate has been joined on the issue with endearing combativeness. Thus, we read in the conservative think-piece Commentary, in reference to the President's critics, that "The Wizard of Oz was less flagrant in his mummery, more modest in his pretensions" (Lowell Wood of the Livermore National Laboratory). And in the learnedly liberal New York Review of Books, the venerable and distinguished George Ball has accused Reagan of imposing upon his originally skeptical followers a mass conversion (to SDI) reminiscent of that decreed by King Ethelbert of Kent in the sixth century," and has dismissed SDI as a strategic fantasy that would come to life only "when shrimps learn to whistle."

As usual with Reagan's critics, they spoke too soon and vociferously, doing violence to their own credibility. Thus, the Union of Concerned Scientists, of which Carl Sagan is co-chairman, claimed to a congressional committee that 280,000 defence missiles would be necessary to operate the system instead of the somewhat attainable best guess of 5,000. They also claimed that 2,400 anti-missile satellites would be required, each costing $ 1 billion and lumbering determinedly into the sky carrying a 40,000-ton linear accelerator (about the weight of RMS Lusitania or the battleship New Jersey), instead of, as is now acknowledged, 100 less expensive satellites bearing into orbit rather less Sisyphean payloads of 25 tons.

The argument about feasibility must be determined by qualified experts, but seems not to have resolved itself into a conventional discussion of cost effectiveness for a comprehensive but not airtight system. The most reliable estimate of its efficacy is the alarmed reaction of the Soviet which started extensive research on its own satellite-launched anti- missile defence system several years before the United States but from an inferior technological base. Already consecrating 15% of the Soviet GNP to defence and facing a limitless horizon of minimal economic growth, the Russian leadership, under its fourth chief in three years, clearly finds unappetizing the prospect of a full scientific competition with the United States that could render the Russian nuclear delivery capacity obsolete.

The post-feasibility position of Western critics (e.g. Pierre Trudeau) has been the incantation that SDI is"destabilizing." It is MAD that is destabilizing. Even Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko described MAD as early as 1962 as "a permanent state of feverish tension" in which the superpowers "raise their pistols, aim at each other's foreheads and wait for the other to shoot." The argument that the Kremlin leadership might react irresponsibly to the prospect of losing nuclear equivalence is a psychiatric question, not a strategic one. If the world is imperiled because the Russians might blow it up if the United States regains the comparative nuclear superiority it possessed through most of the nuclear age, then SDI is the least of our worries, and the Kremlin leaders should banish themselves, not their political dissidents, to their versatile psychiatric hospitals. Anyone setting out to assess these strategic questions must rise above a mountain of polemical advocacy and misinformation.

It is often stated, but is not true, that a poor or unequal armaments agreement, one that in practice would promote insecurity rather than stability in superpower relations, is preferable to no agreement at all. Equally fallacious is the proposition that the continuance of the arms race will inevitably lead to war. Every nuclear weapon developed in the Western world in the past 30 years has been successfully deployed for exclusively deterrent purposes. The more ingenious the system, the more reliable is the deterrence, and the arms race, costly and nerve-racking though it is, is preferable to war or submission. Even the Soviet Union--which has never hesitated to brutalize unoffending and helpless neighboring countries, and which has an extensive official literature on the prosecution of and survival in nuclear war--has shown no disposition to attack the direct national strategic interests of its rival. The worst that can be said is that the Soviet Union has sought, in a massive militarization that goes far beyond anything required for its defence or convenient to its shambling economy, the fruits of victory without the unbearable costs of war. Particularly distasteful is the tendency of some "social democratic" posturers in the West to represent the superpowers as morally equivalent. (Trudeau's complaisant abstractions at the time of the imposition of martial law in Poland are a case in point.) If the Russians were to accept the geopolitical status quo, they could amicably resolve their problems with the United States in a fortnight. If the United States were to cease to deter Russian aggrandizement, the whole world would shortly be paying tribute to Muscovy, in fulfilment of antediluvian Rusian aspirations.

The fact that there are ancient and ineluctable reasons for Russian behavior should not induce us to ignore its minatory nature. The United States is, as Mackenzie King said to General Charles de Gaulle, "an overwhelming contiguity" but it is not really a very overbearing neighbor. The official U.S. policy of promoting a phased transition to the preponderance of the defence in the nuclear armament rivalry, so that aggression is deterred by the forces of contemporary history as well as by the lights of perverted science, is admirable, whether or not it is attainable. Brian Mulroney (like Reagan's other principal allies) should be commended, rather than baited, for his cautious support of that initiative.

The ideal outcome of the talks now underway in Geneva would be a gradual and reciprocal ascendancy of defensive nuclear weapons; an accompanying build-down of offensive nuclear weapons; a revitalization of mutual balanced (conventional) force reduction in Europe; a naval construction restraint agreement; and a range of security building measures, starting with an upgrading of the hot line and perhaps a joint crisis control centre. A less than ideal but valuable outcome would be to trade SDI and home offensive weapons for a sharp reduction in strategic and intermediate strengths. U.S. perseverance no doubt will lead to a satisfactory variant of one of those results.

Reagan enunciated his arms control policy in 1981 as "a verifiable, equal- aggregates armaments reduction agreement or an arms race they (the Russians) can't win." The prize for recent diplomatic ineptitude could go to the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, for comparing SDI to the Maginot Line. Caspar Weinberger is not Andre Maginot, Ronald Reagan is not Marshal Petain; Washington is not Vichy; and that is as it should be.

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