THERE IS a brooding presence in Deadly Gambits. In page after page, it makes its presence vaguely felt. Strobe Talbott offers the reader glimpses, tantalizing hints of an influence we sense must be crucial to his story. But through hundreds of pages of well-written, exhaustively-researched work. Talbott barely acknowledges the existence of this presence. It must be the Soviet Union (they are the other super-power, aren't they?), yet judging from the title, the introduction, and almost the entire work, it might as well be our imagination.
The reader cannot help but admire Talbott for his obvious concern about nuclear weapons, for his intelligence, for his grasp of the issues, and not least for his keen and conscientious attention to the importance of individuals in foreign policy negotiation. Deadly Gambits will clearly enter the history books on a par with such works as Robert I. Kennedy '40's account of the Cuban Missile Crisis and George F. Kennan's writings on containment. But this dual account of the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) talks and Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) suffers critically from an almost exclusive focus on, and a slant against, the current Administration's conduct of nuclear arms negotiations. The Soviets are dealt with sparingly, if at all, and one is left with an eerie sensation akin to hearing only one side of an important telephone conversation.
The cover and flyleaf provide ample warning of the one-sided account to follow. Underneath the main title we read "The Reagan Administration and the stalemate of nuclear arms control." Are we negotiating with ourselves? And on the flyleaf we find no mention of the Soviet Union except in relation to the "dangerous stalemate" brought about by Administration "infighting" and "ideological conflict." If the reader thought he was going to read about superpower rivalry he is about to be disabused this is a book about the perfidy of the Reagan Administration, and precious little else.
Curiously, Talbott opens himself to such criticism by occasionally treating the Soviets with equal disdain. In his Prologue he comments on a quote by Yuri Andropos in January of 1984.
'It is an open secret now that for almost two years the representatives of the United States in Geneva have been, so to say, beating the air.' Actually, if way a good description of what both sides had been doing--not only in Geneva, but in Moscow and Washington as well."
Elsewhere in this general introduction he makes similarly balanced and thoughtful observations:
In the 1970s, liberals and conservatives alike exaggerated what arms control could accomplish, loading it down with burdens of hope it could not bear or blame it did not deserve, and expecting it to work wonders by itself...Arms control is not a substitute for defense. It is defense conducted by other means...
BUT SUCH even-handed and realistic treatment dies an early death in his first segment, which deals with the INF talks. He first goes through perhaps the clearest description yet published of the original rationale for Euromissile deployment back in the late '70s:
...It has been a cardinal principle of American and allied planning that the Soviets must be forced to contend with the very real possibility that an attack on Europe would trigger a punitive response from American weapons...Extended deterrence has been a way of making it more difficult for the Soviets to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy toward NATO: it has been a way of "coupling" American and West European defenses...But as a result of their buildup in the late sixties and seventies, the Soviets drastically reduced and may have eliminated the American margin...It seemed now that the Soviet Union might soon be in a position to rely on its own central, strategic forces to hold the U.S. in check while it used its conventional and shorter-range nuclear forces to subdue Western Europe.
He continues by describing the detailed alliance consultations which produced the so-called "dual-track" decision of 1978--planned deployment of American Pershing II ballistic missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles to "couple" irrevocably U.S. nuclear defense to the defense of Europe, and simultaneous negotiations to eliminate or reduce this deployment, if the Soviet Union responded in kind with their SS-20 intermediate range missiles.
Talbott's treatment of the SS-20 continues his deceptive even-handedness. He first brands it as a weapon "designed to circumvent" the limits of SALT I, "a classic example of the Soviet penchant for playing as close as possible to the edge of what is permissible...but nonetheless upsetting the stability and predictability that arms control is meant to help achieve." And then he gives the central argument for deployment in the absence of an equitable agreement:
By giving the Soviets a monopoly in a whole category of weapons--modern land-based, intermediate-range ballistic missiles--the SS-20 created the perceived gap at the level of theater nuclear forces, or INF, in the 'continuum,' or 'spectrum,' of deterrence. It thus undercut the credibility of American doctrine for the defense of Europe."
At this point Talbott's reader might expect a reasonable discussion of the problems and frictions both sides experienced through the long and frustrating INF talks in Geneva. Instead, we are subjected to pages and pages of criticism directed solely at Washington's approach to the talks. Intra-Administration rivalry, attempts to solidify the support of the Europeans, the "public relations" push for domestic support of our position--Talbott describes it all in excruciating and damning (at least in his eyes) detail. His acknowledgement, that the Soviets never accepted the West's intention to deploy at least some missiles to counter the SS-20 sneaks by in a glancing reference. The Soviets' ridiculous opening proposal, in which they offered to participate in creation of a "nuclear-free Europe" (thereby leaving the Europeans at the political and military mercy of vastly superior Warsaw Pact conventional armies), is not ridiculed nearly as harshly as the West's "zero option."
Talbott does not seem to listen to his own very convincing dismissal of the Soviets' principal argument, which contended that British and French nuclear weapons already constituted an allied deterrent. The small arsenals these NATO partners maintain do not threaten the Soviet Union, and in fact the French forces are not even integrated into the NATO force structure; Talbott knows this, but he does not extend the same type of withering criticism to the Soviet rationale as he does to the American one.
The rest of his INF account follows predictable lines. He blasts the Administration again and again for inflexibility, public posturing, insensitivity to the Europeans, lack of expertise, and political infighting. His longest discussion, on the so-called "walk in the woods" initiative undertaken by chief negotiator Paul Nitze, ends with a fizzle. This informal proposal, worked out exclusively between Nitze and his opposite number Yuli Kvitsinsk, would have "traded" deployment of the Pershing lls for a significant reduction of the SS-20s. Talbott describes with withering sarcasm the process by which the Administration repudiated Nitze's action, seeming to put the onus for stalemate on Washington. But he ends his chapter lamely with this: