From the time of World War II, East-West relations have seemed to resemble nothing so much as a yo-yo. First the buoyant spirit of wartime cooperation gave way to Cold War confrontation. Then came efforts to warm up the atmosphere - efforts dashed either by Western actions (the U-2 incident) or Soviet ones (the Cuban missile crisis). By the early 1970s the frost had lifted and ''detente'' was born, ushering in new hopes for cooperation and peace. Yet by the early 1980 s - because of disappointments on both sides - the chill was back.
Is this a pattern never to be broken? Perhaps some swings are inevitable, given the divergent nature of the two camps - a ponderous totalitarian system in the East which makes for rigidity and slowness in policymaking and a boisterous democratic system in the West which has to absorb free-wheeling debate, the pressures of conflicting interests, the unpredictability of public opinion, and, not least of all, frequent political change making it necessary to educate new leaders to the ABCs of the Soviet Union. Yet after so many decades should it not be possible to evolve a more stable and consistent Western policy?
Yuri Andropov's advent to power provides the opportunity for at least trying. As George Shultz and his Western colleagues set about the task, they would do well to consider the advice passed on by diplomats and others well versed in Russian and Soviet history and experienced in dealing with Moscow. Among these fundamentals:
* Be prepared militarily and politically to stand up to Soviet aggrandizement. The Soviet Union is an imperial power bent on extending its influence in the world, and only the West's armed strength and political and moral resolve can prevent it from exploiting every opportunity for its own geopolitical advantage.
* Don't, however, fail to understand the complex factors - historical, national, cultural as well as ideological - dictating Moscow's outward thrust. The principal driving force is probably less a desire to dominate the world than a determination to protect its borders, a determination born of centuries of insecurity. National pride is also a strong impulse to be taken account of.
* Be willing to speak out forcefully when necessary but avoid strident language. There is little to be gained by constantly thundering at the Russians and creating the impression that, no matter what they do, the West will adopt an ''anti-Soviet'' posture. Too much rhetoric devalues the coin. Anyway, the men in the Kremlin do not heed what Western leaders say but what they do.
* Remember, in this connection, that behind-the-scenes diplomacy is more effective than public confrontation. Other nations dislike losing face, or being humiliated, and the Russians are no different. Experience has shown that Soviet compromise on such issues as human rights can be more easily achieved when the Kremlin is not seen backing down under Western pressure. (The emigration of Soviet Jews is a classic case in point.)
* Don't distort assessments of the Soviet Union. The USSR is a formidable adversary and the dangers should not be minimized. But public debate and national policy are skewed when government leaders overdramatize Soviet military strength; fail to take account of Soviet weaknesses in the political, economic, social, and diplomatic spheres; or blame Moscow for every problem in the world. Only balanced appraisals will make possible reasonable and effective Western responses.
* Be realistic about the West's goals. The primary objective of foreign policy should be to preserve peace in the world, not to force democratic changes in the Soviet system. Transformation of the Soviet Union must take place internally and, while the West can be sympathetic to forces of liberalization, actively promoting dissent rather than encouraging evolution would be a risky undertaking. By nudging the USSR into more active coop-eration with and participation in the global community, the West in the long run may in fact do much to improve the conditions for internal reform as well.
* Be prepared to deter the Russians where they challenge the West's interests. But recognize that there are mutual interests that provide a basis for cooperation. First and foremost, the Soviet Union no less than the West has a stake in bringing the superpower arms race under control, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations, and avoiding war.
* Treat the Soviets with civility and respect but avoid, as one former US envoy puts it, ''chumminess'' in official relations with them. Fewer emotional swings will occur in East-West relations when the public realizes that a normal relationship with the Russians is possible without regarding them as ''friends'' or ''enemies.'' The basic relationship is competitive but it need not be hostile.
* Be willing to appreciate Moscow's concerns and disappointments, such as failure of the US to ratify a nuclear arms agreement negotiated in good faith by several American presidents and to grant it the trade benefits it was promised. Such understanding provides a better atmosphere in which to seek compromise and agreement.
It will never be easy dealing with the Soviet Union as long as its system, values, objectives, outlook are inimical to those of the West. But, observing these basic guidelines, the West's statesmen should be able to put East-West relations on a more stable footing.