Postponement of the Bush-Gorbachev summit in February had almost nothing to do with the few technical difficulties that still have to be ironed out in negotiations on a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. It had everything to do with the reactionary political turn in the Soviet Union, Moscow's crackdown on the Baltics and other rebellious republics and, of course, President Bush's preoccupation with the war in the gulf.
Is the postponement justified? Absolutely not. It is contrary to U.S. national interests. The cause of the Baltic people will not be advanced, nor will U.S. attempts to keep Moscow solidly within the anti-Iraqi coalition be strengthened.
Political appearances aside, the only rationale for a delay in the signing of the most important treaty in the history of arms control would be based on the assumption that things will get better in the Soviet Union. Actually, things are likely to get worse. Hardline ideologues and militarists have flung President Mikhail S. Gorbachev into full retreat from his magnificent experiment in the liberalization of Soviet society. It would be tragic if putting off the summit, primarily at U.S. insistence, prevents the two superpowers from locking in significantly lower limits on the nuclear arms race.
Make no mistake: were it not for jolting developments totally non-germane to nuclear arms control, the START treaty would be on track and due for signing next month. Eight years of painstaking negotiations, plus the end of Cold War tensions in Europe, had brought both powers to the point of approving massive 30 percent cuts in their nuclear-weapons arsenals.
Americans should understand that START is in no way a gift to the Soviet Union. On the contrary, the Gorbachev government has accepted arms reductions that cut more deeply into Soviet than U.S. military inventories. One could argue that recent Soviet chiseling on the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), a pact signed only last fall, makes any agreement with Moscow suspect. But a signed, detailed document is surely better than no agreement at all. It provides a standard against which performance can be measured. SALT II, even though unratified, is a case in point. Signing of a START pact, as a benchmark encouraging all nations to pull back from nuclear catastrophe, would be justification enough for any summit.
We trust the summit will be held by mid-year, as now promised, ut the absence of a specific deadline lifts the pressure on negotiators to complete their work. It gives the Soviet militarists added time to oppress rebellious nationalities and, perhaps, even give comfort to their old allies in Iraq. Finally, it denies President Bush the opportunity to encourage Soviet reform where it matters most. His presence in Moscow in mid-February would not have symbolized neglect but fulfillment of his responsibilities in the gulf war.
All in all, the summit delay was a bad decision we hope will not turn worse.