Arms Race in Reverse

January 30, 1992

"We have to make a choice between the quick and the dead." So said presidential adviser Bernard Baruch in 1946 as the new-born United Nations gathered for the first time to wrestle with the new-born nuclear genie. For the better part of half a century it looked ominously as if the choice was with the dead. The two superpowers, locked in ideological enmity, built 100,000 warheads -- some so fearsome, accurate and clustered that, in themselves, they seemed to invite doomsday.

Today, miraculously, the choice seems to be with the quick -- with life. Washington and Moscow are still in an arms race, but it is an arms race in reverse. When Presidents Bush and Yeltsin meet at Camp David this weekend, each will be seeking to augment astounding drawdown offers that essentially end their bilateral competition and make them allies in preventing nuclear proliferation.

Mr. Bush, in his State of the Union address, jettisoned the "counterforce" strategy that, for two decades, implicitly threatened the Soviet Union with a knockout wallop no matter what nation initiated hostilities. He announced plans to eliminate the nation's most potent land-based missile system (50 MX missiles carrying ten warheads each), canceled the mobile Midgetman missile program, reduced submarine-based missile forces by a third and curbed cruise missile development.

Boris Yeltsin quickly responded with cutbacks of similar magnitude and an announcement that the old Soviet strategic ** strike force under his command will no longer be targeted on America. Mr. Bush might match this gesture when he meets with the Russian president.

These gratifying developments still leave the two superpowers with nuclear arsenals far too vast for any conceivable threat they soon may face. Still to be devised is an effective way to destroy these weapons without causing further contamination. Still to be devised as well is a credible defense against rogue nations (Mr. Yeltsin specifically named Iraq), which is why a limited missile defense program has developed a surprising constituency on Capitol Hill.

These developments are indeed of "biblical proportions" (to use Mr. Bush's felicitous phrase). But it needs to be said that they were not the result of sudden enlightenment, but of economic reality. First came the startling Soviet collapse, then increasing evidence of American decline. Leaders in Moscow and Washington found they simply could not afford further nuclear insanity.

The president and Congress already are involved in an $l election-year squabble whether the defense budget should be cut over the next half-decade by $50 billion or double that amount. Americans no longer targeted by Soviet missiles need lose no sleep over the outcome. The MX, the B-2, the Seawolf, the Midgetman, advanced Trident warheads -- all these are gone or going. A process is under way (cross all fingers) in which the great nations are choosing to be quick, not dead.

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