The wisdom of holding the next superpower summit hostage to completion of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty might be on the verge of being confirmed. Now that President Bush has asserted explicitly that START "must be finished up" before he makes a long-delayed journey to Moscow, a high-powered Soviet delegation is in Washington ostensibly to do just that.
Presumably this delegation, chaired by Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, has more authority to negotiate than has been the case in recent months. If the diplomatic game plays out as the White House hopes, an agreement on outstanding issues could be readied this week, it could be announced when Messrs. Bush and Gorbachev meet briefly in London July 17 and the summit could be held before the end of this month.
Such a scenario would bring a dramatic end to the nine-year undertaking to reduce nuclear arsenals. Unveiling a START breakthrough just before Mr. Gorbachev addresses the government chiefs of the Group of Seven industrial democracies would also make professions of Soviet economic reform and international good behavior more persuasive.
Neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Gorbachev has been anxious to draw a quid-pro-quo connection between arms control and Western aid for Soviet economic reform. Yet the two issues are inextricably joined. To overcome hard-line generals and orthodox Communists who resent repeated Soviet military concessions to the West, Mr. Gorbachev has to demonstrate that disarmament is the only way to rescue an economy that has been gutted by overspending in the defense sector. To build American popular support for greater U.S. financial support down the road for the battered Soviet economy, Mr. Bush needs a START treaty that manifestly serves U.S. military interests.
It may be, strictly as a matter of security, that arms control is losing some of its relevance as the two superpowers stop menacing one another. But as a matter of politics, arms control remains a litmus test in international relations.
The specific issues still in dispute on START are important mainly because they are blocking an agreement. As Mr. Bush observed a few weeks ago, the 500-page treaty is already 96 percent complete. Historic agreements already have been reached to slash nuclear armaments of the most destabilizing and threatening nature. The remaining points dealing with verification, counting warheads and and open exchange of data can be cleared up quickly -- if there is a will to do so.
Mr. Bush has declared that a breakthrough will come once Mr. Gorbachev "energizes his bureaucracy." Not quite. START will get the jump start it needs when both superpower leaders energize themselves and issue the necessary orders.