Western media speculate about ''power struggles'' in the Politburo as the Soviet leadership determines who will succeed Mr. Andropov, whose health is uncertain. Whichever contender assumes leadership, the possibility of a Soviet succession paralleling United States presidential elections underscores three questions in US-Soviet relations:
* How much of a problem and weakness is the succession issue for the Politburo?
* How does our own ''succession'' system affect relations with the Soviets?
* What should we do about all this?
Conventional Western analysis of the Soviet succession issue has largely been based on the theory of the power and policy struggle. There is no Soviet constitution nor public document which outlines procedures for Politburo succession. The nature of a ''closed,'' highly autocratic society suggests secrecy and ruthlessness in eliminating potential rivals, hence the need for seizing complete or near-complete power. It is also assumed that changes in leadership imply different policy directions as well.
This is what happened following Lenin's death in 1924, when Stalin systematically purged and eliminated his opposition, using changes in policy as weapons. After Stalin, succession of Soviet leadership has proceeded more smoothly and bloodlessly than the ''power struggle'' theory might suggest. So there are grounds for reexamining conventional wisdom over the nature of Soviet ''power and policy struggles'' and contrasting these observations with our process.
The trend in Soviet succession has been toward smoother transitions and fewer policy discontinuities. Following Stalin's death in 1953, aside from eliminating Lavrenti Beria, then-head of the KGB, summary and mass executions did not follow Khrushchev's rise. While deposed contenders such as Georgi Malenkov may not have liked new assignments managing power stations in Asian Russia, a consensus of the remaining collective leadership over the limits of policy was emerging.
In 1964, Brezhnev and his colleagues forced Khrushchev out of office and into loose house arrest where he wrote and had published in the West his memoirs. Leadership changes in the Politburo occurred, including the exit of Kosygin and Podgorny, who shared the leadership troika. But the collective aspect of the leadership was being brought into sharper focus.
With Brezhnev's death, Mr. Andropov, head of the KGB, assumed leadership in what seemed a smooth transition. Now with Mr. Andropov perhaps incapacitated, speculation grows over the latest Kremlin struggle for power with Chernenko, Romanov, Aliyev, and Ustinov as prime contenders. All of that may be correct.
Contrast this process, however, with our own public, constitutional, and electoral succession system. We have not had a full two-term president since Dwight David Eisenhower. Mr. Reagan could change that. After Kennedy's assassination each elected President lost his legitimacy, credibility, and ultimately his authority - Johnson over Vietnam, Nixon over Watergate, and Carter over the general perception of his weak leadership. This loss of presidential mandate erodes many of the advantages in policy continuity, as rejection of a president often means rejection of effective as well as ineffective policies. From a foreign policy perspective, these high swings in rhetoric and often in policy may reflect electoral dissatisfaction but cannot always be guaranteed to protect our long-term interests.
On top of these ''one-term'' presidents, superimpose campaigning for a second term and you see the effect on policy continuity of large changes in leadership through election and routine turnover. Thus, while our succession process is more constitutionally precise than the Soviets', our peculiarities of process and attendant policy discontinuities may put us at a disadvantage we once believed was a central flaw in the Soviet system.
The youngest Politburo member has been in the party for nearly four decades. Of the candidates likely to succeed Andropov, all have long political service. Thus, experience, proximity, and length of service may have produced a consensus and moderating of extremes. What does all this suggest?
First, there may be more continuity and less weakness in the Soviet succession process than we believe or, for that matter, than exists in our own system. It would therefore benefit any US administration to recognize that political differences between the two superpowers may be exaggerated and magnified by the potential for discontinuities in our process as well as in the Soviets'.
Second, the need for more institutional and apolitical links between the two superpowers is important. Suggestions of the late Henry Jackson and other senators to exchange military liaison officers have great merit.
Third, and above all, mutual study and understanding must increase in sophistication and depth. The Kremlin may be an enigma and riddle. But our system also is subject to discontinuities and misunderstandings. Reducing these misperceptions where possible while appreciating legitimate interests and concerns is essential to our mutual security. Like it or not, we are both consigned to existence on this planet. There is no attractive alternative.