Almost nine years after the United States and the Soviet Union opened negotiations on a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the finish line is in sight. If Presidents Bush and Gorbachev meet as scheduled for a mid-February summit in Moscow, the highlight will be the most ambitious pact in arms control history. The two superpowers will agree to scrap more than a third of their nuclear arsenals and commit to further reductions.
There still are technical obstacles to closure. Moscow is objecting to low-power directed transmissions in U.S. missile tests which it cannot detect and complains that the United States is encoding data about its Strategic Defense Initiative. In the Soviet view, this violates the spirit if not the specifics of the pending treaty.
The United States is asking access to both first-stage and final-assembly sites for heavy Soviet SS-24 and SS-25 rockets, but the Russians now agree only to final-assembly access. Both sides also are in dispute whether the Russians should be able to inspect B-2 Stealth bombers, how to define heavy ICBMs, how to count re-entry vehicles and how to measure reductions in throwweight.
Arms control experts are convinced these are technicalities that should not be allowed to block a treaty marked by agreement in many more important sectors. While Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze were unable to clear away all problems in their talks last week, the honor of announcing a final accord is usually left to heads of government.
Nonetheless, as Casey Stengel would say, "It ain't over till it's over." When hopes at the Bush-Gorbachev summit last June were stymied, the two leaders announced they planned a START signing before the end of this year. Now another six-week delay is confirmed.
With their rivalry diminishing in so many areas, the two superpowers ought to dismantle swiftly yet prudently their excessive nuclear weaponry. Even with the modest cuts envisaged by START, 17,000 nuclear warheads will remain in their combined strategic forces -- an arsenal still capable of destroying the world many times over.
A case can be made for maintaining nuclear deterrents sufficient to contain rogue powers or terrorist organizations. In this endeavor, superpower interests have long converged. But until now, the United States and the Soviet Union have been unable to stop a nuclear arms race that encouraged the very proliferation they wanted to stop. It is time for START to finish.