The Soviets are not people like us. As the election campaign gains momentum, it has become fashionable for liberal critics of the Reagan administration to imply the contrary. They claim that US-Soviet differences are primarily caused by misunderstandings. The leaders of the two nations should get together quickly and surely, a resumption of detente can be worked out.
Hardly so. America and Russia have sharply different interests. In addition, the two societies have contrasting systems of fundamental values and objectives. Understanding each other better may actually lead to greater hostility than rapprochement.
Mr. Reagan was in error when he publicly talked about putting the Soviet regime on the ''ash heap of history'' and accused the Soviet leadership of lying and cheating.
The President himself has admitted in a recent Time magazine interview that his remarks were ill conceived. Indeed, it makes little sense to slap the face of people you intend to negotiate with.
Still, the harsh-words behavior of the Reagan administration notwithstanding, it is a simple fact of life that the Soviets have a profoundly different attitude to truth and morality. Top Soviet officials accuse Ronald Reagan of being Adolf Hitler reincarnated. Mother Russia is in mortal danger. There is no alternative to tightening the belts and making sacrifices to rebuff the imperialist threat.
And what about Soviet dissidents? They are imperialist spies. Most are on the CIA payroll. Why would an honest Soviet person disagree with the policies of his government unless he was rewarded with American dollars?
According to the Kremlin, the CIA is everywhere. It was the CIA that attempted to assassinate the Pope. And the CIA ordered the murder of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro because he was exploring the possibility of bringing the Communist Party into the Italian government. The CIA also played a subtle, yet principal role in arranging the rise of Solidarity in Poland. Agents of this sinister organization have contributed to a split inside the PLO.
Soviet foreign policy, as seen in Moscow, naturally, is beyond reproach. The Soviets do not admit a single serious mistake in their international activities since the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. Privately, more sophisticated Moscow analysts and officials are prepared to entertain the notion that involvement in Afghanistan or in Angola could have been a miscalculation. But they would hasten to add that the Kremlin's intentions were noble. And anyway, everybody behaves this way.
US efforts to punish the USSR for transgressions in the world and domestic repression are unjustified and insulting. Soviet Russia is not a banana republic and should not be treated as one.
When the Soviets are caught red-handed their typical reaction is to be annoyed rather than apologetic. Yes, they are lying through their teeth, but to say so is rude and unfair. At a meeting in Washington, a Soviet official insisted that everyone is free to leave the USSR. The reason that emigration has come to a halt is that almost nobody would apply. Also there is no difficulty in gaining access to American periodicals in Moscow. Anyone can just go to the Lenin library and pick up Time or Newsweek.
What is aggravating in talking to the Soviets is not that they are less than truthful. Stretching the limits of truth - and on occasion ignoring it altogether - is a norm for most governments around the world. What is unique about Soviet lying is that those who practice it seem to be almost unaware that they are engaging in falsehood.
From kindergarten on, Soviet children are taught an ''operational meaning'' of truth. Facts are irrelevant. Soviet children are programmed to always say what is expected of them. The expression of one's own ideas is discouraged.
Years ago, in the second grade, my class in Moscow was instructed to write an essay about one of Alexander Pushkin's poems. My paper was returned with a teacher's comment: ''Totally unacceptable. This is not a composition but an elaboration of your private views. And why should anybody be interested in them?''
Americans also lie. But as a rule they know that this is wrong and feel guilty. When a typical Soviet official lies on behalf of his government he does what comes naturally and what is socially acceptable. Calling him a liar would surprise and offend him.
The United States has no alternative to negotiating with the Soviet Union. And despite charges of some arms control agreement violations the Soviet's overall record is fairly encouraging. The Kremlin does not negotiate for years over every comma in treaties with the United States in order to disregard them in search of a marginal advantage. Current technology allows the timely detection of practically any militarily significant violations. And the Soviets are aware of that.
But while seeking incremental arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, the United States should never lose sight of basic political and moral differences between the two superpowers.
During the Carter administration, it was fashionable among US officials to describe the relationship with the Soviet Union as a mixture of competition and cooperation. How misleading! The US simultaneously competes and cooperates with Japan. But the American relationship with Communist Russia is dominated by rivalry.
The key task of superpower diplomacy is to establish rules for the inevitable competition. Diplomacy cannot, and should not be asked to, accomplish more.