293. Report Prepared by the Delegation to the US-Soviet Talks on Conventional Arms Transfers Second Round1

US-Soviet Talks on Conventional Arms Transfers Second Round, May 4–8, 1978

Delegation Report

Significant progress, more than we expected, was made in the US-Soviet talks on Conventional Arms Transfers, which took place in Helsinki from May 4 to 8.

Our net assessment is this: We cannot draw positive conclusions from this round about Soviet willingness to make restraint agreements with us or to actually cut back on their arms transfers. The fundamental Soviet stance remains wary and skeptical.

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In the judgment of the Delegation, however, the Soviets were serious and, for the most part, practical in their approach to this round. Most importantly, they are now committed to the process of discussing restraint. When our joint communiqué stating this is released on Thursday,2 we will have some basis to ask for more cooperation from other suppliers and recipients.

It is our strategy to use this process itself as a means of generating pressures on suppliers to slow down the pace of transfers and to think twice about how much and what kinds of weapon systems are to be transferred.

1. Objectives

The US side was charged with (a) assessing the “seriousness” of Soviet interest in the talks, and (b) securing Soviet agreement to future rounds of meetings. The latter proved to be of only minor consequence as the Soviet side clearly was prepared to agree to continue the discussions, even before the sessions began. With regard to Soviet “seriousness”:

They certainly were serious at this round. They came prepared to present their own approach to conventional arms restraint—one based on “political and legal principles.” They asked fairly sophisticated questions about the US functional guidelines which revealed serious study of the details of US policy.

The tone throughout was constructive. The Soviets avoided polemics as a rule. Nor did they shrink from discussions of topics on which they are vulnerable—such as arms transfers to the Horn of Africa.

The joint communiqué issued at the conclusion of the round (attached)3 contains significant evidence of “seriousness.” In it, the Soviets agreed: (a) that the subject was “urgent”; (b) that transfers could affect US-Soviet relations adversely, as well as international peace; (c) that the talks are in accord with the 1972 Declaration of Basic Principles of US-[Page 726]Soviet Relations;4 (d) that the talks would continue on a “regularly scheduled” basis; and (e) most importantly, that future rounds would consider “concrete measures” to implement arms restraint. Public acceptance of each of these points is a first for the Soviets, and was attained only after persistent US efforts. A communiqué of this length and substance is rare, and should be counted as evidence of their positive mood.

We also discovered other points of agreement including, most importantly, the need to involve other suppliers as well as recipients in the restraint process.

A more definitive assessment of Soviet seriousness must await their response to the US proposed agenda for the next round (see below), and their presentation at that round. Two factors suggest a cautious attitude: (a) the Soviets, despite considerable US pressure, refused to characterize the next round as “negotiations”—a word, which to them indicates that formal agreements are to be considered; and (b) the proposal the Soviets tabled at the Helsinki round (i.e., that we each agree not to sell “excessive” arms to one another’s neighbors) obviously was not a serious one.5 With regard to the latter point, however, they did state that this proposal was “separate” from the rest of the discussion. In any case, Gelb informed the Soviet chairman, Mendelevich, privately, that the USG would formally reject the proposal.

2. Respective Positions

The Soviet side presented in some detail, and argued forcefully, for discussion of “universal political and legal principles.” If, they argued, the two sides and other suppliers could agree on such abstract principles, arms transfer restraint would become an actuality. Essentially, the Soviet “principles” specify that countries which engage in certain types of conduct in contravention of international norms could under no circumstances receive arms from other countries, while other recipients—which engage in conduct considered desirable under these norms—could receive arms without limitation. The international norms of conduct would be drawn primarily from Soviet interpreta[Page 727]tions of such ambiguous documents as the UN General Assembly’s Definition of Aggression6 and Declaration of Friendly Relations.7

The US side argued that while appropriate political and legal principles might be developed, it also is necessary to develop functional guidelines such as those which make up US unilateral arms transfer policy (The Soviets characterized these as “military/technical guidelines”). These rules would provide specific practical guidance for sales decisions based on the nature of the weapons involved and the local military situation, and would also deal with specific problems such as co-production arrangements and re-exports.

By the end of the round, both sides referred to “criteria for arms sales” which, it was understood, would include both political/legal and military/technical factors. The US side insisted, however, that drawing up such a list of criteria—no matter how inclusive—was not sufficient. To be effective in restraining arms, we argued, these criteria had to be applied to the situations in specific regions. Consequently, the agenda proposed by the US side for the next round included the establishment of working groups on political/legal criteria, military/technical criteria, and regional situations—specifically, Latin America and Africa south of the Sahara. The Soviets cautioned us not to expect their agreement to this complete agenda the next round. They would at best agree to discuss one region, they said, and only under the rubric of a general discussion of the “regional approach.”

This will be the next test of Soviet “seriousness.” While we should not expect them to accept our proposed agenda in toto, there should be appropriate progress toward regional discussions in the next round.

3. Next Steps

The next round would probably be held in early July, and hence we need to move quickly to prepare. We also will have to move considerably beyond our previous work into the preparation of specific proposals, rather than general considerations, that can be laid on the table.

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Specifically, we suggest: (a) that the President authorize our participation in a third round of talks; (b) that an SCC meeting be held soon to review progress to date and to formulate, for your approval, draft general guidance for preparation of the US positions for next round; and (c) that a second SCC meeting be held in about six weeks to formulate, for your approval, draft specific guidance and instructions for the US side in the third round.

  • Leslie Gelb, Chairman
    Director, Political/Military Affairs Department of State
  • Barry Blechman, Deputy
    Assistant Director
    US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
  • Jessica Mathews
    National Security Council Staff
  • Brigadier General Robert Sennewald
    Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • James Michel
    Legal Advisor
    Department of State
  • John Rowe
    Office of the Secretary of Defense
  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 94, PRC 079, Arms Transfer Policy: U.S. Next Proposals, 5/29/78. Secret. The report was attached to a May 10 memorandum from Tarnoff to Brzezinski. (Ibid.)
  2. May 11. In a joint communiqué, the two sides “agreed that the problem of limiting international transfers of conventional arms is urgent” and called for “solution on a constructive basis so as to promote international peace and security and strengthen détente.” Both sides also “stated their belief that effective solution of the problem requires full consideration of the legitimate defense needs of the recipients in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” (“Joint Communiqué by the United States and the Soviet Union: Consultation on Limiting International Transfers of Conventional Weapons,” May 11, 1978, Documents on Disarmament, 1978, p. 286)
  3. The joint communiqué was not attached.
  4. See footnote 9, Document 291.
  5. On May 17, the Department of State instructed the Embassy in Moscow to “personally” inform Mendelevich that the United States rejected this proposal because it was “one-sided and not cast in the spirit of our discussions as focusing on specific regional situations where arms transfers can harm our bilateral relations, as well as threaten international security and stability, and on broad political and military criteria.” (Telegram 125832 to Moscow, May 17; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850004-1540)
  6. UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX), December 14, 1974, defined aggression as “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.” (http:://www.un-documents.net/a29r3314.htm)
  7. UN General Assembly Resolution 2625 (XXV), October 24, 1970, proclaimed that states “shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of any State;” “shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means;” had “a duty not to intervene in matters within the domestic jurisdiction of any State;” had “a duty to cooperate with one another in accordance with the Charter;” respected the “principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples;” and uphold the “principle of sovereign equality of States.” (http:://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NRO/348/90/IMG/NRO34890.pdf)