Ironic, the sense of anticlimax about the pending Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. A few years ago, before Mikhail Gorbachev, a START deal would have been the hope of a new era in great-power relations. Arms control was the barometer of the Cold War.
Now delight at the new deal contains all the right words -- ''historic,'' ''first actually to reduce long-range weapons'' -- but the edge is missing. The treaty is just one event among many with even greater implications for a new balance of power.
Therefore, some say, START matters little. With the improvement in East-West relations, the argument goes, arms control has been overtaken. It was always more important for political import than for reducing weapons; no one expected the great powers, then, now, or later, to abandon the power of mutual destruction. Current Soviet leaders threaten no outsider. So OK, the skeptics say, sign your treaty and ratify it, but more important tackle the new threats to peace: domestic disarray in all its forms, rampant nationalism, the spread of rockets and nukes in smaller nations.
But the argument is incomplete. This is not the first time arms control has been poorly understood.
The negotiating terms are incredibly complex, defying understanding by all but a tiny circle beyond those directly involved. Memories fail. New generations take over, in weapons as well as in negotiators and politicians. The official line today refers routinely to nine years of START negotiation. Right; but only rarely does anyone note the more accurate time frame of 20 years. START embraces many results from a decade of negotiations during the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. Jimmy Carter finally got a strategic-arms deal, the unlamented SALT II, which was shelved in the Senate -- but Ronald Reagan liked it well enough to accept its restraints informally.
For years the media, adopting official guidance, talked of START's provisions for 50 percent reductions in missiles, bombers and submarines. The media -- and even many gurus in think tanks -- shifted their numbers to more accurate 30 percent reductions only with better understanding. But despite the occasional alarms over technical breakthroughs, reductions in arms were less important than order and discipline and the inhibiting effect on others. Under the new treaty, Moscow and Washington may still refine and repackage their arsenals over the next decade for greater sophistication at lower levels.
Political and military dimensions of arms control are in fact inseparable. With START that broad relationship remains constant. But today's details differ greatly from those of the past. Wins and losses in earlier negotiation, besides defining strategic position, were measures of leadership in alliances and of the rivalry for influence. Today Moscow's influence is near zero abroad and plunging within the Soviet Union. The rivalry is over for now.
Instead the U.S., the winner, is able to exact breathtaking concessions while treating a deal as reinforcement of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's crumbling position at home. Even Mr. Gorbachev seems to agree. If that sounds bizarre, stand by: It is the case the Bush administration will make in Senate hearings on treaty ratification.
Doubtless it will succeed, if only because START overwhelmingly favors the U.S. But students of irony will find ratification fascinating in both countries. Yes, there will be a Soviet debate; these days the parliament is involved. Opponents in both capitals will be ''conservatives.'' But Soviet conservatives in the new vernacular are die-hard Communists. Those in the U.S. are their natural enemies, the familiar hard-liners on the right.
The hearings will be a reminder too that beyond politics, after all, START still has a serious arms-control purpose. The danger of nuclear war may be at the lowest point since World War II. When START matures, the current and former superpowers will still be able to blow the world apart. But there is much to be said for the discipline of long-term treaty compliance. Some money will be saved, though not a lot. If Mr. Gorbachev falls to hard-liners tempted to turn back the clock, the further the clock has to be turned the better. And if the Soviet Union breaks apart, the fewer weapons in radical hands the better.
That's especially true since START may be the last sweeping arms-control treaty for decades. As a half-dozen have-not nations tinker with nuclear weapons, only idealists think the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- or whatever follows it -- might reduce below START levels.
The spark is gone, snuffed by the exhaustion of governments and ideas. It could reappear with new players. But that will be later, and even then new players of good will, looking at that 19-year record behind START, might be too discouraged to take up the challenge.
Henry L. Trewhitt, former diplomatic correspondent of The Sun, teaches at the University of New Mexico.