Yesterday's Bush-Yeltsin agreement to reduce nuclear arsenals to one-third their present level will eventually eliminate the multiple-warhead, land-based intercontinental missiles that are the most menacing and destabilizing weapons ever devised. It is an extraordinary step forward, the symbol of a relationship that is leaving confrontation behind and moving toward friendship, if not outright military alliance. No wonder President Bush could say "the nuclear nightmare recedes."
The accord will permit the United States to maintain a predominant position in those areas where it traditionally has been strongest: submarine-based strategic rockets and nuclear arms carried on long-range bombers. This is in line with Mr. Bush's assertion just before his summit talks with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin that the United States has to maintain a more potent nuclear force because it has a responsibility for maintaining world peace that Russia does not have to shoulder.
In contrast to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START, that was signed last July by Mr. Bush and former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the new accord was negotiated in weeks, not years. START provided the framework for one-third reductions in nuclear arsenals that were relatively easily adjusted to two-thirds in what might be called START II.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Yeltsin accepted a two-phase approach that initially will reduce arsenals below U.S. and above Russian proposed levels but eventually will settle in a range that will permit Moscow to avoid any further buildup and also satisfy U.S. security requirements. According to arms experts, Washington agreed that four rather than eight warheads will be carried by launchers on its Trident submarines, thus halving its strategic sea-based force from 3,456 warheads to 1,760.
Both domestic and international politics propelled the two presidents to swift closure on a START II agreement. Mr. Bush is in a tough re-election fight, and Mr. Yeltsin is encountering mounting resistance to his economic reforms. Over and above that was a mutual desire to encourage the other nuclear states of the old Soviet Union -- Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan -- to turn over their strategic weaponry to Russia as they supposedly agreed last month. In addition, both the United States and Russia are anxious to set an example that might slow the menacing proliferation of nuclear weapons among Third World nations.
In reducing their strategic weaponry from a combined total of 21,000 warheads to about 6,000 to 7,000 over the coming decade, the two big powers will still retain forces easily capable of blowing the world to smithereens. Yet giant steps, not small steps, have been taken that in the end may convince the rest of the world what Americans and Russians learned so painfully: that security lies not in weapons of mass destruction but in their elimination. Yes, "the nuclear nightmare recedes," but it still lurks in far too many dark corners.