In taday's complex world one foreign policy challenge seems to stand out above all others. Can the United States and the Soviet Union establish the kind of relationship that will keep their political and military rivalry from erupting into a nuclear war? The Russians say they are ready for "normal businesslike relations" with Washington. President Reagan has written to Leonid Brezhnev expressing hope that the two nations can establish "a framework of mutual respect" for an improvement of ties. Although there is a wide gulf to be bridged between the world and the deed, these statements seem to reflect a willingness in Washington and Moscow to try to break through the present state of disarray in relations. In the interests of peace and progress, the world must hope so.
Unfortunately, Soviet-American relations always seem to move in cycles, lurching from one extreme to the other. Either there is a "cold war" marked by heightening tensions and mutual recriminations. Or there is a state of "detente" that seems to generate the mistaken notion among some that military alertness is no longer necessary. The great need is to redefine the relationship in a balanced way so the American people will understand that it is possible to have normal ties with the Russians without regarding them as "enemies" orm "friends."
Also, good diplomacy requires developing policies based not on emotion and a free-wheeling use of rhetoric for domestic political purposes, but on an honest, realistic assessment of mutual concerns and interests. This is what is being urged on the US by its Western allies, who are deeply worried that the administration's strident anti-Soviet posture risks undoing the gains of detente , however limited, and rekindling another dangerous period of cold war. Both sides are perceived to have reasons for complaint.
The US concerns are obvious: Moscow's huge buildup of conventional weaponry and deployment of powerful nuclear missiles targeted on Western Europe. Its continuing occupation of a country outside the Soviet bloc. Its activities in Ethiopia, South Yemen, Angola, and other parts of the third world with the help of Cuban proxies.
Less understood, perhaps, are the concerns of the Kremlin, because these tend to receive less stress in the media: Washington's failure to ratify the SALT II treaty, negotiated in good faith under three US presidents. Its unwillingness to grant the Soviet Union most-favored-nation trade status, as promised under the terms of detente. Its use of detente to "interfere" in Soviet internal matters -- by, for example, making trade concessions contingent on Jewish emigration. Its conspicuous contingent courtship of China. Its tendency to blame moscow for every world problem. Its insensitivity to treating the USSR with the deference due a major power.
It would be foolish in the extreme to misread Soviet aims or to forget the nature of Soviet society. The Soviet Union is a totalitarian power bent on subjugating its people at home and seeking geopolitical advantage abroad. Until such time as the communist system undergoes deep change, the West has no choice but to keep up its defenses and to try to forestall Soviet aggression. In fact the Russians would only scorn the United States if it dealt with them from a position of weakness.
But even while pulling up its defense socks, the United States does well to engage the Soviet Union in hardheaded talks aimed at working out a civilized relationship. The two superpowers now possess some 16,000 nuclear bombs between them -- and they are building more. Can they afford not to develop that "framework of mutual respect" President Reagan calls for?