Superpower thaw

American relations with the Soviet Union are a long way from the level of amity they enjoyed at the height of detente. But it should not go unrecorded that they are once again improving. President Reagan came into office persuaded that Moscow was the source of all the world's problems. Perhaps he still believes so. But domestic and international pressures are inexorably pulling him toward a more centrist, balanced position in the conduct of foreign policy, including policy toward the Russians. Such a shift doubtless will sit more comfortably with the American electorate next year than a belligerent stance which arouses concern about war.

Yuri Andropov, for his part, doesn't have to worry about an electorate. But he does have his own brand of domestic problems, including an inefficient economy that is not providing Russians with a gradually rising standard of living. He could use a period of relative calm and stability in East-West relations in order to concentrate on reforms at home. And so, without handing Mr. Reagan anything that could directly assure his reelection, he appears to be cautiously meeting him half way in an effort to mend ties.

Almost two months ago we mentioned and applauded some signs of movement. Significantly, they continue to mount:

* The two sides have agreed to reopen negotiations on a new cultural and scientific exchange agreement.

* Talks will be renewed on establishing consulates in New York and the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.

* A five-year grain agreement has been concluded with Moscow - and signed with uncommon fanfare in the Soviet capital.

* The US has ended its ban on the sale of pipe-laying equipment to the Russians.

* With diplomatic finesse, the State Department recently let the 16-year-old son of a Soviet diplomat return to Moscow, though the youth reportedly had written the President asking for asylum.

Aside from these concrete steps, there also appears to be some movement in negotiations on intermediate-range missiles in Europe. Mr. Andropov has clarified that any missiles, including the SS-20s, which would be reduced under an agreement with the United States would actually be destroyed, not merely moved to Asia, as US negotiators had feared. This offer does not satisfy the American side, for the Soviet leader still insists that the US abandon its plans to deploy new Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe. He also insists the independent British and French forces be taken into account in any reductions - something the US refuses to accept. So on the face of it the parties remain far apart.

But with each new public statement, Moscow seems to give a little, indicating that the US is right in its assessment that, as the time for installation of the NATO missiles draws near, the Soviet Union is bound to show more flexibility. This does not necessarily mean an agreement will be reached before the deployments begin in December. But it does keep open the possibility of progress when the negotiations resume next week.

It would also be premature to conclude that a new era of detente is about to dawn. A return to the exaggerated aura of US-Soviet amiability which prevailed in the 1970s is not to be wished in any case. The euphoria of those times was unrealistic - and in the end harmful. But, in an age of awesome nuclear arsenals , social disorders, and global economic challenges, it would be shortsighted and dangerous to let US-Soviet relations continue their icy slide.

The signs of a thaw, however limited, are reassuring. Mr. Reagan and Mr. Andropov should be encouraged in their course.

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