WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of Americans and Russians spent nine years putting together the new treaty to cut strategic nuclear arms. Only half-facetiously, however, some in government are looking at the challenges ahead and calling the pact signed Wednesday in Moscow the end of "easy" arms control.
The Persian Gulf war and its aftermath have spotlighted a whole new array of seemingly intractable arms control problems, sure to put a heavy burden on the now friendly superpowers.
The immediate focus may be on the Middle East and its always mounting stores of weapons, where an impending Arab-Israeli peace conference under superpower auspices may, or may not, reduce historic antagonisms enough to ease the way to arms restraint.
But Mideast arms problems are worldwide problems as well -- threatened nuclear proliferation, chemical weapons, ballistic missiles, advanced conventional arms -- requiring worldwide solutions.
The major suppliers -- the United States and the Soviet Union, but also countries such as France that have a much heavier economic stake in arms sales -- are at least talking about restraints for the first time.
And the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the 1990 East-West pact to cut conventional arms in Europe should give Washington and Moscow more influence and credibility in trying to head off the Third World spread of weapons of mass destruction.
"With the end of the Cold War the need to meet new arms control challenges has been exposed by the Gulf war," the respected London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said in its annual Strategic Survey.
"In each case, effective U.S.-Soviet cooperation will provide the linchpin to securing agreement on far-reaching arms control measures. With such cooperation, arms controlmight have a chance; without it, failure will be certain."
And success, if it comes, will come slowly. Reginald Bartholomew, the under secretary of state for international security policy, went to Capitol Hill in June to tell a restive Senate Foreign Relations Committee about ambitious U.S. proposals for controlling conventional and mass destruction weapons in the Mideast.
"It will not be a smooth or quickpath," and it "will require an unprecedented degree of multilateral cooperation," he said. For a parallel, the high-ranking official cited the years it took to reach the 1990 agreement on conventional arms cuts in Europe. In fact, Mr. Bartholomew was a junior official in the Defense Department when those talks started in 1973.
Up to now, main arms control deals have been bilateral U.S.-Sovietarrangements, East-West pacts mainly guided by the two big powers, or agreements -- such as the 1925 pact on chemical arms and the 1972 one on biological weapons -- that lacked teeth but enabled signers to stand on high moral ground.
But a stage is looming now at which regional and global deals will be sought that would bring genuine, and therefore hard-fought, multilateral arms cuts and, in the case ofMideast missiles, eliminations.
Officials here, underlining these points, emphasize the conflicting national interests, the difficulties of verifying compliance and the controversies that come into play over what is or is not a weapon -- for example, harmless chemicals that can be made into weapons or rockets that could be space boosters or missiles.
An oft-cited example of trouble in applying restraints in the Mideast is the countries' differing perceptions of threats. The IISS survey said in this regard, "A purchase by Saudi Arabia might be perceived as destabilizing by Israel, but indispensable to cope with Iraq (or Iran)."
The military superpowers, taking on new responsibility for pushing global arms control, still have a considerable agenda of their own.
Next month, they resume their talks in Geneva on the highly controversial issue of ballistic missile defenses, defenses that the Bush administration seems determined to pursue. The two countries are already under pressure to re-start the START process, to negotiate much lower limits on intercontinental nuclear weapons than specified in the new treaty.
When and if they do resume such talks, they may face the question of how much they want to cut their arsenals in light of the spread of ballistic missiles to other countries, especially near the Soviet Union. President Mikhail S. Gorbachev spoke Wednesday of that worry in Moscow, and President Bush referred to "renegades" with nuclear arms, a stated reason for his current interest in missile defenses.
The two countries will get together in the fall to discuss where they want to go next in arms control, according to White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater.
Another item on their agenda is battlefield nuclear weapons -- artillery, bombs and short-range missiles -- in Europe. And the 22-nation agreement cutting conventional weapons in Europe is supposed to be followed by one fixing troop ceilings.
Officials here believe there is a prospect that Mr. Bush's deadline of next May for a pact totally banning chemical arms may be met. Forty countries are negotiating in Geneva.