Blowing Up Arms Control

EVIDENTLY, President Reagan gets warm all over when he thinks about the December 7 Washington meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev at which a treaty to ban intermediate-range nuclear missiles will be signed. Asked about the significance of the summit's being held on the 46th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Reagan recently said: "I thought to myself, wouldn't it be wonderful if Pearl Harbor day would become superseded by the day that we began the path to peace and safety in the world."

The president's remark may appear appropriate to the occasion. Comments like these, however, fuel idealistic expectations that will never be fulfilled. Sadly, arms control is but a tiny step on "the path to peace and safety." Reagan, who has repeatedly stressed his "realistic" outlook on the "Evil Empire" in the past, should of all people be aware of the limitations of arms control.

BUT the Iran-contra fiasco and Bork's defeat in the Senate have given the President strong incentive to play up the significance of the forthcoming agreement. Add the stock market instability, and the President's last claim to fame is in jeopardy. So Reagan has abandoned his avowed realism in order to distort the agreement's utility.

Mikhail Gorbachev's intentions are no loftier. If others in the Soviet leadership consider him to have concluded a beneficial pact, Gorbachev's liberalizing reforms will have a better chance--and he knows it. And the savings from arms control may give the Politburo the cash needed to carry out the reforms.

For the time being, arms control is in the self-interest of each leader. But the President twists the truth when he implies--or comes right out and says--that controlling arms is a means to peace. Weapons do not cause political antagonism, they are simply the means for its prosecution. Eliminating or limiting weapons therefore does not further the cause of political harmony. Arms control, after all, does not directly address the tensions among nations that necessitated the arms in the first place.

DESPITE the media's infatuation with journals published by dissident poets, glasnost has provided little reason to believe that ideological differences between the superpowers are likely to vanish in the near future.

Political harmony has proven itself to be a transient international mood. As long as there are reasons for the United States and Soviet Union to conflict--uncontrolled passions in the Middle East and Latin America, the occupation of Afghanistan, Soviet violations of human rights--there will be reasons to rebuild weapons, reasons to deploy weapons, and reasons to use weapons. Arms control is not a solution to these problems.

ARMS control is a positive indication of increasing superpower communication. And arms control may be a wise check against Soviet military increases at a time when economics may require the U.S. to limit military spending. These are short-term benefits.

Hopes for arms control now, however, will make it difficult for subsequent administrations to secure adequate defense appropriations from Congress. In contrast, the handful in the Kremlin who make Soviet policy can reverse arms reductions at a word. When the Soviets someday shatter our misplaced idealism, and they will, American public opinion will shift--and if history holds, shift too far.

Arms control must be appreciated for what it is: a temporary means of saving money and an indication of superpower communication, but not a substantive indication of Soviet--or, for that matter, American--goodwill. A fundamental refashioning of superpower relations requires not a simple cutback in weapons but a complex, gradual, and painstakingly slow evolution toward mutual Soviet and American understanding.