The change in leadership of the Soviet Union presents the United States with a rare opportunity to exert major influence now and in the next few months on the long-term shape of the US-Soviet relationship.
The US should promptly take the initiative, giving evidence to the new Soviet leader of an American desire to move away from the appearance of confrontation and toward effective communication. Both in public statements and private contacts, the Reagan administration ought to hew to a thoroughly consistent line over the next few months that it wishes to resume arms limitation negotiations, particularly on nuclear weapons. It might note that meaningful negotiations were difficult to conduct recently because of the disability of Mr. Andropov, but that now they could and should resume, after the selection of a new general secretary of the Communist Party.
President Reagan also ought to call for a summit meeting with Andropov's successor within the next few months. This should be the beginning of a pattern of the leaders of the two superpowers knowing each other, even though no agreement should necessarily be expected to emerge from such a meeting.
Such initiatives, however, should be taken realistically and utterly without naivete. It is important to realize that the Soviets' system of government, its values and ideology, are vastly different from those of the United States - despite the fact that people are people the world over. Any negotiations should be conducted not only with recognition that change is possible, but with realization that every promise or agreement - as on arms control - must be completely verifiable, and should never be taken on faith.
It is debatable whether American initiatives would bring a positive response from the Kremlin in this US election year. Some US Kremlinologists believe there is a realistic prospect that they just might, especially if a younger man became the Soviet leader and was eager to exert his influence promptly, as some of his recent predecessors have been.
Other experts hold that there is not likely to be any change in current Soviet policies until next year - but that now is the time when the US, through its attitude toward the USSR, can have a significant effect on Soviet policies in 1985 and beyond. They say that this year the Soviets will be preoccupied with their leadership succession, which could take months or a few years to play out. Besides, they note, the Soviets would prefer not to have to deal with President Reagan for four more years, and feel that agreeing to a summit or reaching an arms agreement would virtually hand him the November election.
In any case, most American experts on Kremlin affairs believe that once again there will be a collective leadership in Moscow for the foreseeable future, whoever is named to replace Andropov as party secretary. If the new leader is a member of the older generation, like Dmitri Ustinov or Konstantin Chernenko, it would indicate a longer period of collective leadership and perhaps a second consecutive transitional government, during which there would likely be little change in direction of Soviet policy. In such a case the USSR would likely be very cautious about changing hard-line policy toward the US, whatever America itself did.
But if the Andropov successor is a member of the relatively young generation of Soviet leaders, like Mikhail Gorbachev or Grigori Romanov, it would indicate the passing of the Soviet leadership torch to a new, better-educated generation. This leader would then be expected to move forward more swiftly from a position of first-among-equals in the collective leadership to strengthen and consolidate his power within the Soviet government. Such a leader would thus be in position more quickly to shift the direction of Soviet policy, and to respond positively to American initiatives.
Unlike the US, the Soviet Union has no set procedure whereby new leaders assume full national power. Once a new head of the Communist Party is selected by the party leadership, it is up to him to build alliances and consolidate power so as personally to take over the effective leadership of the government. Most previous Soviet leaders have succeeded in doing this to greater or lesser degree, although there is dispute as to whether Andropov - hampered by illness, and the brevity of his tenure - was ever able to consolidate his power.