At What Price Arms Control Agreements?

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As Secretary of State James Baker begins his ministerial meetings in Moscow, U.S. officials are feverishly backgrounding the press to effect maximum "spin control." "Administration sources" are saying that Secretary Baker is armed with new concessions, aimed at breaking through remaining roadblocks to complete START and other agreements. At the same time, however, unnamed officials are putting out the word that Gorbachev may be unable — or unwilling — to close deals originally intended to be the centerpiece of the upcoming Washington superpower summit.

In other words, the backgrounders suggest, the United States is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to "lock up" arms control accords with Moscow. For an image-conscious political operative like Secretary Baker, however, the most important message is a different one: If — despite such willing American concession-making — agreement cannot be reached by the end of the Moscow ministerial, the blame will rest squarely with the Soviet Union.

Such is the deplorable state of public debate about the agreements now in prospect — accords which will affect strategic, conventional and chemical arms and nuclear testing — that the politico-military effects of the concessions Secretary Baker intends to make is scarcely discussed in "polite company." Even less attention is being paid to the underlying question: Does it make sense under present circumstances to be offering these or indeed any concessions in order to secure Gorbachev’s agreement to arms pacts now in various stages of negotiation?

‘Let’s Make a Deal’

Until fairly recently, the argument used to justify making haste in the preparation of various arms control accords was that these agreements would facilitate the success of Gorbachev’s perestroika, according to which Soviet resources were supposed to be shifted from the military to the civilian sector of the economy.

In keeping with this logic, issues that in the past had prompted U.S. concerns about the equity, utility or verifiability of such agreements — and had consequently been important obstacles to concluding these pacts — were trivialized or dismissed by the Bush Administration. In fact, the more explicitly the United States government has become committed to ensuring the success of perestroika, the greater the impetus for U.S. initiatives in various arms control negotiations. In recent months, such initiatives have included the following:

  • The June 1989 proposal to include limitations on aircraft in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty now being negotiated in Vienna — despite the inherent unverifiability and potentially adverse military implications of such limitations.

  • The commitment, announced at the same time, to enter into negotiations on short-range nuclear forces (SNF) — a diplomatic black hole for the Western alliance in whose defense strategy such weapons continue to play an important part. Worse still, the Bush Administration has recently expressed its willingness to accelerate the start of such negotiations, even as it has unilaterally terminated programs needed to preserve the effectiveness and deterrent credibility of the SNF systems involved.

  • The abandonment last September of a longstanding American demand that all mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles be totally banned by a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, thereby ensuring that the verifiability and the strategic value of such an accord will be vastly reduced.

    The folly of this step has apparently become apparent to the Bush Administration; it has tried to reverse field somewhat with a February 1990 proposal that would once again ban those mobile ICBMs that carry more than one warhead (MIRVed weapons). The need to reestablish the original U.S. position prohibiting both MIRVed and single-warhead missiles is more clear than ever in light of the revelation last weekend that Pentagon planners now accept what has long been obvious: Budget constraints make it exceedingly unlikely that the United States will proceed with deployment of its own mobile ICBMs.


  • The U.S. embrace in the fall of 1989 of a Soviet ploy by which it purported to retract an earlier linkage between a START treaty and the negotiation of additional limits on the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative. Even though the Soviet Union at the same time made clear its determination not to comply with a START treaty if the United States proceeded with a significant SDI program — which the Bush Administration maintains the United States intends to do — Secretary Baker affirmed the Soviets’ contention that this formula clears the way for early conclusion of the START accord.

  • The announcement that the United States would terminate production of modern chemical weapons as part of a deal with Moscow to reduce the U.S. and Soviet chemical arsenals. This concession was justified in part on the grounds of domestic political and legal difficulties with continuing such production; it represents, nonetheless, a major and ill-advised departure from past American policy which recognized the vital importance of maintaining a modern chemical deterrent against a growing number of potential threats.


The full extent of the further concessions Secretary Baker has in mind has not been revealed. Published reports have signalled that they include a U.S. willingness to compromise on principled U.S. positions on air-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles in START. In some respects even more worrisome is the Bush Administration’s willingness to adopt a course flatly and repeatedly rejected by President Reagan, i.e., conclusion of a "framework agreement" on strategic arms to be signed at the summit. Inevitably, such accords begin to constrain American programs virtually from the moment they are initialled, even though many of the most important points — notably the details concerning verification — are left to be sorted out subsequently, if at all.

Changed Rationale, Same Policy

Over the past few months, the premise that ostensibly justified U.S. arms control concessions has undergone a subtle but distinct shift. In fact, where once the success of Gorbachev and perestroika was viewed as inevitable, there has lately been a growing recognition inside and outside of the Bush Administration that neither are likely to succeed. Indeed, virtually everyone in official Washington now recognizes that Mikhail Gorbachev’s half-step reforms are doomed to fail — with or without arms control.

There is, of course, still considerable uncertainty as to what will happen when such a failure occurs. Some worry that Gorbachev will be toppled and replaced by avowedly more hard-line communists who will lead the Soviet Union into increased aggression at the expense of Western interests. Gorbachev’s recent behavior in connection with events in the Baltics and Red Square, however, suggests a different scenario is far more likely: Rather than allow his regime to lose control of the USSR, President Gorbachev will probably try to exploit the massive dictatorial power he has consolidated to date, with sobering implications at home and abroad.

Whatever the outcome, one would think that the new appraisal of developments in the Soviet Union would be leavening the yeasty enthusiasm in the West for doing arms control deals with the current ruler of the Kremlin. This would, of course, greatly underestimate the determination — and the resourcefulness — of those in Washington (and allied capitals) who are committed to consummating new arms agreements, come what may.

The Bush Administration is now implicitly, if not explicitly, arguing that the original policy approach toward hasty arms control agreements continues to be fully justified — even if the previous rationale no longer applies. Instead Secretary Baker and his colleagues are offering a new pretext for making additional concessions in order to close increasingly dubious deals: While we do not know what will follow the present era of Gorbachev’s leadership, the United States will be better off for getting Moscow to promise to cut up vast quantities of armaments. After all, it is argued, such arms will be difficult, expensive and time-consuming for the Soviets to replace in the event (considered unlikely by the State Department) that they might ever wish to reconstitute the threat posed by status quo ante forces.

Unfortunately, the Administration’s latest logic appears at least as flawed as the previous basis for precipitous movement in the arms control negotiations:

    First, as documented by repeated presidential reports on Soviet non-compliance and epitomized by the Soviet Union’s belated admission that the Krasnoyarsk radar is a violation of the ABM Treaty, even the Soviet regime responsible for concluding an arms control agreement cannot be relied upon to honor it. This point was reinforced by Moscow’s latest violation involving the INF Treaty and illegal deployments of SS-23 missiles in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, which occurred on Gorbachev’s watch. It is at the very least imprudent to expect that a successor regime would behave otherwise — particularly one that may choose to disassociate itself from the policies of a previous and discredited government.

    Second, the present Baker logic appears to be a classic case of counting the proverbial chickens before they are hatched. Virtually any reductions agreement will take years to implement; START, conventional forces and chemical arms pacts, for example, will stipulate that the required destructions of weapons be carried out over protracted periods. In a scenario in which Gorbachev disappears from the scene — or becomes more hostile — the effect of the agreed reductions on actual Soviet military capabilities in place at that time will surely be less than is now being suggested.

    Some may contend that this is not a serious cause for concern because cuts on the U.S. side will similarly not have gone into effect. Unfortunately, the reality is that steps that will adversely affect American security are being taken by this country now, in part motivated by the anticipation of coming arms control agreements. Actions like defense budget cuts and programmatic slowdowns and vastly expanded Soviet bloc access to militarily relevant Western technology are already beginning to degrade the U.S. posture vis a vis the Soviet Union.

    Finally — even if one believes the Soviets will honor their commitments to make arms cuts and that no build-up in forces will ensue until the cuts have been fully implemented — it is simply wrongheaded to think the United States will be advantaged should Moscow decide to resume its accretion of military power. As a practical matter, the things in which the Soviets’ system has excelled have been amassing weapons and concealing their buildups, when they choose to do so.

    By contrast, the United States has never been able to compete quantitatively in arms with the USSR; it is unlikely to be able to do so in the future. In fact, the U.S. industrial base is already experiencing significant contractions in the face of cumulative defense budget reductions over the past five years. Moreover, Congressional willingness to invest the necessary sums to correct past actions and respond to a renewed Soviet build-up can hardly be assumed.

    Regrettably, as the levels of deployed hardware are reduced, the incentives for the Soviets to exploit their production infrastructure to establish favorable "correlations of forces" will only increase. In this connection, it is worth noting that the emerging START treaty is likely to produce warhead-to-target ratios that are more advantageous to the USSR than the pre-treaty situation. Such a situation could actually have the effect of increasing Soviet incentives for a first strike. It would also facilitate the Soviets task were they to chose to produce larger numbers of strategic missiles, obtaining thereby still better attack capabilities than exist at present and doing so at relatively low costs.

Moscow’s Tried and True End-Game Negotiating Gambit

The Bush Administration’s determination to press on with its ill-advised arms control strategy — apparently oblivious to these realities — is going to cost the United States even more dearly, thanks to Moscow’s practice of suddenly upping the ante in the final stages of negotiations. Just as the Soviets did in the final weeks or "endgame" of the INF negotiations, once American agreement was obtained to fix a date in May for a presidential summit/signing ceremony, Soviet positions on a number of key points suddenly became more obstinate.

The Administration has tried to explain away the current Soviet recalcitrance by blaming it on Gorbachev’s domestic difficulties or, alternatively, to his resurgent military’s insistence on diplomatic hard-ball. Past experience, however, suggests that it is instead simply the classic Kremlin response to a situation of tactical advantage. If so, the Baker strategy for the Moscow ministerial meeting — one of desperately seeking to avoid blame for any inability to consummate arms control agreements by offering still further concessions — will play directly into the Soviets’ hands.


The Center for Security Policy believes that U.S. security interests will be jeopardized should the Bush Administration proceed with its present, headlong rush to complete no fewer than five different arms control agreements with the Soviet Union by year’s end. Negotiating complex arms control agreements with the Soviet Union under artificial deadlines is a bad idea under the best of circumstances. Given the present, acute uncertainties about the future character and direction of Soviet policy, however, the Administration’s determination to reach accords apparently with little regard for the cost in terms of quality control or content seems especially reckless.

Consequently, the Center urges the Bush Administration to shift gears at once by implementing the following substantive and procedural changes:

  • President Bush should reaffirm the Reagan Administration policy opposing framework agreements which establish binding commitments bereft of detailed implementing arrangements, in particular those that bear upon the verifiability of such accords.

  • The United States should reduce the number of arms control pacts being simultaneously negotiated. As a practical matter, pressing forward at breakneck speed on five different agreements is unsustainable given present governmental personnel resources and expertise and limited opportunities for senior-level management oversight. Ignoring this reality is a formula for execrable results.

  • The Bush Administration must also make it clear that no new arms accords — not even framework agreements, protocols (e.g., those amending the 1970’s nuclear testing treaties), or executive agreements (e.g., that reducing U.S. and Soviet chemical weapons stocks) — should be signed until the Soviet Union is in full compliance with all its arms control commitments. Unless and until the Krasnoyarsk radar is destroyed, for example, all deals should be off.


The Center is also convinced that a far more sure means of providing for the future security of the United States and its allies than arms control would be to achieve the urgent, radical and democratic transformation of the Soviet political and economic system. Realizing this goal — one which millions obliged to live under Moscow’s oppressive rule clearly share — will require a very different policy approach than that now being pursued by Washington.

The United States must stop making preservation of the Gorbachev regime and the pursuit of arms control the driving force behind U.S.-Soviet relations. Instead, it should adopt a strategy that will channel American political, economic, financial and technological assistance and diplomatic support in a targeted and disciplined way so as to aid those demanding democratic and market economic reforms — reforms of the sort increasingly being resisted by the Gorbachev regime.

If along the way, opportunities are foreclosed for arms control agreements whose true value to American security will inevitably be extravagantly overstated, so be it. This cost will be more than offset by the lasting benefits in terms of a genuine reduction in the Soviet threat — a real "peace dividend" — that will only be achieved when the communist totalitarian political structure and its economic handmaiden, the centralized command system, are supplanted by true democratic and free market arrangements.

Center for Security Policy

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