Richard Nixon, oddly enough, was more confident with the communists than Ronald Reagan is. Before election he appeared the very personification of the hardliner. But by the summer of 1972, Mr. Nixon had concluded a series of accords with Moscow, exchanged pledges of mutual forbearance with Red China, and announced the virtual conclusion of the cold war: ''Our alliances are no longer addressed primarily to the containment of the Soviet Union and China behind an American shield,'' he said triumphantly. ''They are, instead, addressed to the creation with those powers of a stable world peace.''
How different the mood is here today! Are we safer now than in 1972? What has caused this deterioration? For one thing Russia has invaded Afghanistan. Fears have heightened. More dreadful nuclear weapons have appeared. Also, there has been a change of vocabulary. Whereas Mr. Nixon softened his epithets toward Russia Mr. Reagan has continued his hard line. In Orlando, Fla., March 8, for example, he told Americans not to forget that communists ''are the focus of evil in the modern world.'' Strong language.
This causes uneasiness in Europe where a critical moment approaches, the possible deployment of new American nuclear weapons around year's end. In world history few more momentous confrontations are anticipated. Our European allies want to trust America's discretion. But they rejected Mr. Reagan's effort to block Soviet construction of the natural gas pipeline from Siberia and now, just ahead, there could be an even more difficult test.
A man we listen to with respect is Lord Carrington, the former British foreign secretary, who resigned from the government after Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands a year ago. Though out of office he is believed still to have a key place in the informal councils of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government. He does not worry so much about Russia, as do some American hardliners, it appears. Why? In part because he believes that the Russians ''are subsiding into a slow crisis because of their system.'' Lord Carrington is one of Europe's shrewdest observers. In a recent speech, he took as philosophical a view of Russia as did Richard Nixon in 1972:
''Moscow,'' he said, ''is already a decaying Byzantium. There is no longer any doubt about the decline of the East and of the Soviet Empire. But this decay will take place over decades, rather than months or years.''
He would stimulate trade with the Soviet Union when it benefits both sides. (This seems to support President Reagan's relaxing of grain embargoes to Moscow.) He would not let the cold war be institutionalized. He means by this, he says, letting relations with the Soviets be reduced to bomb-counting; to what he calls ''nuclear accountancy.'' He adds:
''The notion that we should face the Russians down in a silent war of nerves, broken only by bursts of megaphone diplomacy, is based on a misconception of our own values, of Soviet behavior, and of the anxieties of our own peoples. . . .''
Well, it would be comforting to accept the Carrington thesis; it seems to him ''extraordinary,'' he says, for example, ''for anyone to claim that the West, in military terms, is in any danger of sinking to its knees.''
But that has not been the Reagan thesis. In his candidacy he charged that the Soviets were winning the arms race. The current battle of the budget has largely turned on his effort to increase arms spending to 10 percent, rather than the more modest 5 percent asked by economizers.
The budget battle is being fought hammer and tongs in an almost incoherent dispute in Congress. There is a new complication - the expansion of the dispute to Central America. Republicans, as Time magazine puts it, are ''having a family feud.'' And Newsweek quotes White House advisers as warning that the row could doom the economic recovery and produce a succession of $200 billion deficits.
History, maybe, is going to have to reassess Richard Nixon (in the calm days before Watergate, anyway). When he achieved direct relations with the two communist superpowers his approach, says A. James Reichley (in the 1981 survey for the Brookings Institution), ''was more flexible and conciliatory than that of any president since Franklin Roosevelt.''