American Diplomacy

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook

Jimmy Carter and SALT II:
by Matthew M. Oyos

Part 4.
Strategic Arms Control Negotiations

THE COMPLEXITIES INHERENT IN SUPERPOWER negotiations blocked the rapid movement that Jimmy Carter sought on strategic arms control. The United States and Soviet Union took different approaches to negotiations and often attempted to tie strategic arms talks to political behavior outside the realm of arms control. Bureaucratic concerns, disparities in geographical position, and variances in strategic capability also complicated arms negotiations. In short, a wide range of issues required resolution before a strategic arms control pact could become reality.

The superpowers' divergent views of arms negotiations were a principal reason for the slow progress on SALT II. While President Carter considered the talks simply an obstacle to surmount, Soviet leaders treated negotiations as part of the overall superpower competition. They strove to advance their political and military position rather than just secure a mutually advantageous agreement. As a consequence, the Soviets might endorse rapid progress on arms control but only when such movement promoted their overall interests. More often, they regarded proposals for swift action as a ploy and favored a slower pace.15

Each side's style of negotiation provided an added drag on the arms talks. The Soviets were suspicious of American openness, which they encountered in abundance with the presentation of the March 1977 proposals. They believed that President Carter was simply trying to score a propaganda advantage rather than achieve serious objectives.16 On the other side of the table, Americans often found the Soviets to be unpleasant bargainers. Commenting on one encounter, President Carter said that the Soviets impressed an American delegation with behavior that was "heavy-handed, abrupt, rude, and argumentative."17 Clashes of personality and culture, these conflicts hurt the negotiations by raising doubts about the other side's sincerity and intentions.

Besides the two nations' dissimilar approaches to arms talks, an asymmetry in the geopolitical circumstances of each country created complications. Varying perceptions regarding Soviet and American security hampered the efforts of negotiators to reach common ground.

  • Geographically isolated from other major powers, the United States could maintain a high level of national security with a much smaller strategic arsenal, provided that the Soviet Union agreed to reciprocal cuts and reduced conventional forces in Europe.

  • The Soviets, however, confronted many potential enemies on their borders and remembered a series of devastating invasions throughout Russian history. Soviet leaders remained less willing to weaken strategic striking power because of added potential threats from Western Europe and China and because the legitimacy of the Soviet regime rested, in large part, on its ability to preserve the territorial integrity of the nation.18

As a result of these asymmetries, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations all experienced difficulty achieving equal ratios of strategic arms, a principle demanded by the Jackson Amendment to the SALT I Interim Agreement. The Soviets justified a larger strategic arsenal by repeatedly pointing to the threats they faced from British, French, and Chinese nuclear forces along with American forward-based systems (carrier-based aircraft and tactical aircraft stationed in Europe capable of striking the Soviet homeland). American leaders resisted such arguments and considered any deliberate inequality in forces that favored the Soviet Union as militarily and politically unacceptable.19

Dissimilarities in the make-up of strategic arsenals complicated matters further. As noted, the strategic forces of the superpowers had differing strengths and weaknesses, a situation that plagued negotiators as they worked to eliminate inequality in SALT II.20 To help solve the problems that arose over the variances in strategic arsenals, the two sides aimed for essential equivalence rather than exact equality in strategic armaments. Essential equivalence meant that the superpowers did not have to match each strategic system on an exact basis; instead, only their overall strategic capability had to be equal.21

ESSENTIAL EQUIVALENCE OVERCAME MANY problems, but this formula did not settle all technological questions. Weapons development remained a highly dynamic process despite arms control efforts, and negotiators often had to deal with new, more advanced weapons capabilities.

During the final months of the Ford administration and the first two years of the Carter administration, the Soviet Backfire bomber and long-range American cruise missiles remained sticking points.

  • Some Americans claimed that a modified Backfire bomber could cover most targets in the United States and demanded that the Soviet Union limit the Backfire as an intercontinental system.

  • The Soviets perceived a danger from low-flying, highly accurate cruise missiles and wanted this technology severely restricted. American officials saw cruise missiles as an inexpensive way to modify bomber forces and refused to surrender the system.

After much delay, the two sides finally compromised when the Soviets agreed that they would not use the Backfire as an intercontinental weapon, and the United States accepted a 600-kilometer limit on the range of cruise missiles and promised not to deploy the device for three years.22

Compounding the negotiators' problems, the United States and Soviet Union both tried to link the international activities of the other to success at the arms control table. To varying degrees, the leadership of each country assumed that their counterparts attached great value to arms control and tried to use that interest as leverage in other areas of the Soviet-American relationship.

  • For the Soviets, the American recognition of the People's Republic of China in December 1978 proved annoying and led them to stall the arms control process. The Soviets feared that the United States would exploit its new ties with China to their disadvantage and wanted to prevent a closer Chinese-American relationship. They demonstrated their displeasure by postponing the summit between Presidents Carter and Brezhnev to sign the SALT II agreement. They knew that the Carter administration desired a new arms control pact and used SALT II to obstruct further rapprochement between the Americans and the Chinese. Eventually the two leaders met, but the Soviet tactic cost the SALT process three to four months and robbed President Carter of precious time needed to win Senate ratification.23

  • To a greater extent than the Soviet Union, the United States linked progress on arms control to other aspects of U.S.-Soviet relations. The concept of linkage did not originate with the Carter administration but was, of course, first pushed by National Security Advisor (later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration. Kissinger saw military, political, and economic affairs as interrelated and declared that the Soviets could not disturb one area without affecting the others. He intended to create a series of vested interests that would lessen Soviet-American competition at a time when United States power had begun to decline.24 In the late 1970s, officials in the Carter administration wanted to use arms control to curb Soviet activities in the Third World. They hoped to check the Kremlin's involvement in conflicts in Southern Africa, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast Asia by tying further progress on arms control to Soviet restraint in those troubled regions. The President himself lent little support to such proposals and pushed forward with SALT II despite Soviet activities.25

CARTER WORKED TO UNCOUPLE ARMS CONTROL from other parts of the Soviet-American relationship but discovered that complete delinkage was impossible. Critics on Capitol Hill and in the informed public insisted on linking progress on SALT to the Soviets' behavior abroad and their human rights policies, even though Carter resisted such efforts.

By June 1979, the President already expected a tough fight on SALT II ratification, and Soviet actions gave opponents of the treaty additional ammunition. Revelations of a Russian combat brigade in Cuba damaged the treaty's prospects for a time in September 1979, but the real blow fell that December when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Ratification of SALT II became politically impossible after the invasion, and Carter withdrew the treaty from Senate consideration.26

The linkage of arms control to other areas of the Soviet-American relationship failed to produce significant results because neither power was prepared to sacrifice other important interests for the sake of SALT II.

  • The political stakes were too high for the Soviets to retreat from their recently gained influence in the Third World. A withdrawal would damage their claim to Socialist leadership and suggest that their stature as a superpower remained less than that of the United States, a perception that Soviet leaders had long wanted to erase.

  • The Carter administration also was unwilling to accommodate the Soviets on China to keep the SALT process on track because closer relations with the Chinese promised too many economic, diplomatic, and military advantages. In fact, the President had felt initially that recognition of China would pressure the Soviets to move forward on SALT II.

By their actions, the leaders of both governments demonstrated that they believed arms control would continue despite other events in the international arena. SALT II promised benefits of its own and ultimately would be judged on that basis. Furthermore, arms control appealed to a large constituency, especially in the West, and could not be easily sacrificed to extract concessions in other areas of Soviet-American relations. 27

Aside from linkage and other problems, arms talks stalled at times because the respective governments lacked a unified voice on strategic arms limitations. Both the United States and Soviet governments consisted of large bureaucracies, several of which had an important voice on strategic arms control. In the Soviet Union, the military, the Communist Party, and the foreign ministry played major roles in molding positions on arms control, while the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), the Defense Department, and the State Department helped determine negotiating positions in the United States. A lack of consensus in Washington or Moscow could slow arms talks even when all other elements of the superpower relationship seemed on course.

The closed nature of the Soviet system obscured the effect of internal disagreements on arms control, but this problem was readily apparent in the United States.

  • For instance, Henry Kissinger admitted that SALT II had remained unfinished between 1975 and 1977 in part because of discord inside the Ford administration.

  • During Jimmy Carter's tenure, Secretary of State Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, respectively, advocated soft- and hard-line positions on arms control.

Such factionalism did not occur only at the highest level but extended down into the various bureaucracies, which made the task of establishing a negotiating stance even more difficult.28

ALTHOUGH CONCERNS ABOUT BUREAUCRATIC "TURF" influenced top policymakers, organizational interests affected internal disputes even more at the lower levels. Governments established agencies to perform various specialized missions such as national defense and foreign relations. As a result, officials tended to view the same policy in a different light depending on how they thought it might influence their particular task. Bureaucrats naturally supported policies that enhanced the execution of their duties and opposed proposals that reduced their sphere of operation.29

To gain a consensus, governmental leaders often placated bureaucracies by compensating them in other ways. In the case of strategic arms control, the White House promised to increase conventional defense spending, in part to gain the military's support for SALT II. This process of internal maneuvering could delay formulation of a unified negotiating position, however, which in turn could slow the progress of arms talks. 30



Domestic Political Considerations

white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC