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Jimmy Carter and SALT II:
by Matthew M. Oyos

Part 6. Conclusion

JIMMY CARTER FAILED TO ACHIEVE HIS MOST AMBITIOUS GOALS for strategic arms control, but he did not depart office in 1981 without progress in this area. The complex nature of superpower negotiations and the impact of American domestic politics meant that progress on arms control would normally move at a slow pace. As a result, Carter did not obtain deep or even moderate reductions of strategic arsenals and concluded the SALT II limitations only after much difficulty.

This accomplishment, however, should not be belittled. Carter possessed enough influence to insure observance of the pact even without Senate ratification, a state of affairs that continued during the Reagan administration. Though SALT II did not bring sweeping reductions of strategic arsenals or strict constraints on qualitative improvements, the treaty reduced uncertainties in superpower relations. The provisions on verification and weapons ceilings helped planners to learn the military capabilities of the other side, and the arms talks proved valuable for keeping open lines of communication, especially as U.S.-Soviet relations deteriorated in the late 1970's. SALT II thus increased stability in the superpower relationship in a time of growing tension and marked another gradual step ahead for the strategic arms control process.40

Carter scored some success on strategic arms control, but the lack of dramatic gains on this front helped frustrate his plans to focus on domestic affairs during his Presidency. Rather, he pushed the modernization of strategic forces and raised spending on conventional capabilities. Despite his early promises to cut defense spending, Carter responded to worries about growing Soviet military power, especially after the invasion of Afghanistan, and lobbied Congress and America's NATO partners for three-percent annual increases in real defense allocations over a five-year period. He justified a strategic modernization program by arguing that the United States needed to maintain essential equivalence with the Soviets as long as each nation possessed a sizeable strategic arsenal. To maintain a rough strategic balance, the President moved ahead with development of the MX missile, continued improvements on the accuracy of warheads, and began deploying Trident I SLBMs. He did cancel the B-1 bomber program but advocated cruise missiles as an alternative way to modernize the strategic air arm.

Ironically, Carter also sanctioned nuclear war-fighting measures to maintain deterrence. In 1980, he signed Presidential Directive 59, which codified a "countervailing" strategy to fight a nuclear war below the level of an all-out exchange. In addition, the Carter administration recommended a modest civil defense program to limit casualties in case deterrence failed. These actions helped deter the Soviets below the level of a general attack but enhanced American capabilities to fight a nuclear war, a stance far from the position of minimum deterrence that Carter endorsed when he first took office.41

JIMMY CARTER ACHIEVED ONLY LIMITED SUCCESS on arms control because of the inflexible nature of strategic nuclear deterrence. By the late 1970s, the structure of deterrence between the United States and Soviet Union had become increasingly impervious to change as it became more complex. This structure involved assumptions about military capabilities, political resolve, and vital foreign interests and eventually became a foundation for East-West stability. Altering this arrangement through strategic arms limitations or reductions required the settlement of a broad range of interrelated military and political questions before an accord could be reached.

The difficulties involved in settling these issues were well represented in the SALT II negotiations and in the American domestic debate over the arms control pact. For President Carter, this process consumed nearly three years of his administration before the invasion of Afghanistan abruptly ended it in December 1979. With SALT II, Carter learned that a matter as important to the security and status of both nations as strategic arms control required careful consideration, or the structure of deterrence could be upset.

To reach arms control agreements, the superpowers also had to overcome complications that affected negotiations from outside the immediate context of the arms talks. Both the United States and Soviet Union linked each other's behavior to success at the arms control table. The Soviets expressed disapproval of the American recognition of China by delaying the Vienna Summit of 1979, but American policymakers attempted to a larger degree to tie progress at the arms talks to Soviet good behavior. Some officials wanted to use the SALT II accord as leverage to check Soviet intervention in Third World conflicts and to obtain other concessions from the Kremlin. Such linkage produced few identifiable benefits and succeeded mainly in slowing the arms control process.

The difficulties that accompanied SALT II during the Carter administration were products, in part, of American domestic opposition and the President's political weakness. In a period when American power and influence appeared in decline, a treaty that left some questions unanswered about national security remained vulnerable to serious political challenge. Soviet intentions also seemed suspect as the Kremlin actively pursued SALT II but still intervened in the Third World and pushed ahead with a large military build-up. Many American critics interpreted this behavior as part of a general Soviet strategy to weaken the United States and demanded revision or rejection of the treaty. Jimmy Carter confronted this hostile climate with the Presidency weakened from the turmoil of previous years and his own political prestige sagging. As President, he lacked the influence necessary to assure domestic acceptance of the treaty in the face of considerable criticism.

FINALLY, IT MIGHT BE ASKED WHY RAPID PROGRESS WAS POSSIBLE ON MORE RECENT strategic arms control agreements, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I and II), if such progress was not possible for Jimmy Carter. The simple and obvious answer is that a dramatic shift took place in the entire context in which strategic arms control occurred.

  • In a rapid succession of events leading to the end of both the Cold War and the Soviet Union, the complex web of issues that had hindered arms control a few years before melted away. Just as armies and armaments serve a political purpose, so does arms control, and the political and diplomatic climate of the late 1980s and early 1990s placed the emphasis less on competition and more on cooperation and reduction. This shift allowed the swift completion of START I and II, and also made the goal for a minimal deterrent seem more realistic. Serious debate even began on the desirability of a post-nuclear world.

    Whatever its merits, the idea of a post-nuclear age belonged more to the realm of fantasy when Jimmy Carter suggested it in the 1970s, a time when threat and deterrence were more the order of the day than reduction and cooperation. Ultimately, then, Carter's greatest misfortune, perhaps, lay in that fact that his vision applied more to the future than to the time in which he governed.

    Article Contents:

    1. Introduction
    2. The Structure of Strategic Deterence
    3. Jimmy Carter's Strategic Arms Objectives
    4. Strategic Arms Control Negotiations
    5. Domestic Political Considerations in the United States
    6. Conclusion??
    7. Endnotes

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