An improved relationship?

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Both Washington and Moscow are now officially on the record as wanting an improvement in their relations.

President Ronald Reagan started the exchange of statements of interest in the subject on Nov. 11. In a brief formal note of condolance to Vasily V. Kuznetsov, senior vice-president of the Soviet Union, Mr. Reagan said, ''I would also like to convey through you to the Sovieu government and people the strong desire of the United States to work toward an improved relationship with the Soviet Union.''

The first response came obliquely on Nov. 15 in the oration at the Brezhnev funeral by the new Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov. He said, ''We are always ready for honest, equal, and mutually beneficial cooperation with any state that is willing to cooperate.''

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The Soviet Tass News Agency reported that Mr. Andropov had repeated these words with specific application to the US when later the same day he received US Vice-President George Bush and US Secretary of State George Shultz.

The theme was picked up and given more detail three days later when Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Tikhonov gave a formal dinner in the Kremlin for 250 visiting American business executives. He said that the new Kremlin leadership is in favor of ''normal, and even better, friendly relations with the United States.'' ''There were such relations in the past,'' he said, ''and they can again become a reality. This would meet the interests of world peace.''

But on Nov. 18 US Secretary of State Shultz said, ''I hear the word 'signal' all the time but the thing we are looking for is the substance of change in behavior. . . .'' He said in the same context that the Soviets have largely caused ''the problems that are before us'' and so it is up to them to take a first step.''

On Nov. 21 Pravda, which speaks for the Soviet Communist Party, said: ''The Soviet Union is always ready for honest, equal, and mutually beneficial cooperation with any state that is willing to cooperate, in particular with the United States.'' But Pravda then went on to assert that the idea of detente is ''sickening the plans of aggressive imperialist circles.''

So two weeks after the passing of Leonid Brezhnev we have declarations of a desire for easier US-Soviet relations from both sides. But each side, in effect, also demands a first move by the other. And each continues to oil and sharpen its weapons. So far we have rhetoric, not deeds, unless one wants to believe that the release of Lech Walesa in Poland was a first deed by the Soviets.

There are three obvious deeds by the Soviets which could reduce tension in East-West relations and clear the way for an attempt at reviving ''competitive coexistence.'' They would be (1) an end to martial law in Poland (2) the beginning of a Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and (3) new and helpful Soviet proposals about nuclear weapons in Europe.

A decline in Soviet support for Fidel Castro, particularly less export from Cuba of weapons and other forms of aid to revolutionary movements in Central America - would be welcome in Washington. Less support for Vietnam and fewer Soviet troops along the Chinese frontier would equally mean less tension in Asia.

But what has the US to offer in exchange for such deeds? Moscow is obviously not likely to initiate what the West would regard as good deeds except in the context of a trade. What have we of the West got to trade?

In the area of weapons a deal probably exists in potential. In theory Moscow might give up some of its superlarge ICBMs if the US refrained from deploying the MX. Also Moscow might withdraw some or all of its 315 SS-20s now targeted on Western Europe if in return the US would refrain from deploying some or all of the Pershing II and cruise missiles soon to be ready.

But such arrangements would be more likely than now if a major change could come about in East-West relations.

At present each of the two superpowers fears the other and resents the very existence of the other. Moscow would not feel truly secure unless the US went out of the power business. The US cannot feel truly secure so long as the Soviet Union continues to be a massively armed world power. Neither one truly accepts the right of the other to exist as a great power. Each likes to dream of a world without the other.

A change would come about if Moscow began to be considerate of the security interests of the US, and be respectful of them. An equal change would come about if in Washington men began to think about what Moscow needs for its security and be considerate of those needs.

At present each thinks of its own security and does not truly recognize the right of the other to be secure. It is going to be difficult in this contest for either Moscow or Washington to progress soon or far beyond the rhetoric of recent days.

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