As the United States and the Soviet Union prepare for formal signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty at the Moscow summit 10 days hence, it is suddenly fashionable to dismiss the arms control process as exhausted and irrelevant. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is much to do -- and with a fair degree of urgency -- if the world is to be made a safer place.
Because of the collapse of the Soviet empire, there is indeed less danger of an all-out strategic nuclear exchange that could incinerate the planet. But continuing revelations about Iraq's atomic bomb program provide compelling evidence that certain Third World powers have the capability to join the nuclear club if they are not constrained.
The international community therefore has an overriding obligation to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But where are the incentives for such action? Do they lie simply in the threat of a United Nations-sanctioned air strike against a rogue power, which is what things may soon come to in Iraq? Or can the superpowers reduce their own nuclear might to a point where other nations will feel that total renunciation of nuclear arms is their side of a good bargain?
As Americans and Russians celebrate what is touted as the first nuclear arms reduction pact in history, they should be clear in their minds about what START is and is not. It is a treaty that orders a 30 percent reduction in present arsenals. But in going down to these levels, the superpowers are settling on numbers that are roughly equal to what both had when START negotiations began nine years ago. And if comparisons are made between today's arsenals and those that existed in 1968, when the Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed, then the United States and the Soviet Union stand indicted for reneging on a crucial trade-off: they would turn off the arms race in return for other powers' forswearing nuclear weaponry.
Instead, the menace of U.S. and Soviet strategic forces has grown steadily, all on the premise that the more reliable systems become the greater is their deterrence. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty ratified in 1972 merely limited but did not stop the growth or sophistication of superpower arsenals. Nor did SALT II, the 1979 pact that went unratified but was largely implemented. That START finally called for actual reductions is the most heralded feature of the new pact. But what may be of equal importance is that it sets up the framework for relatively simple further reductions -- provided there is the will in Washington and Moscow to move ahead.
Because of the danger of nuclear proliferation, START loopholes that permit the development of new weapons systems and the sheer momentum of the military-industrial complex, we believe Presidents Bush and Gorbachev should call for early negotiations on START II when they meet in Moscow. It is of the greatest importance to keep the arms control process intact and working.