FOUR years ago President Reagan dismissed d'etente as a ``one-way street,'' exploited by the Soviets. He elaborated this view with his oft-quoted remarks about the Soviet propensity to lie and cheat in their quest for world domination. The Soviets responded in kind and the stage was set for the escalating polemics and arms race of the past four years. D'etente became a dirty word. Yet, as the President prepares for his second term, the rhetoric has become conciliatory and a Soviet-American dialogue to encourage mutual restraint and a new arms control agreement are said to be his top foreign policy priorities. Talks were held this week to initiate arms control negotiations, and both sides have been talking about a summit meeting later in the year. No one in the Reagan administration wants to call this d'etente, but the professed objectives are the same: an easing of tensions and the creation of agreements to achieve mutual restraint.
How significant is all this movement? Does it represent a lasting change in policy? After all, it is unlikely that Mr. Reagan has changed his views about Soviet behavior, and there are no indications that the Soviets have made any significant new concessions to American interests. Yet, the President may well have changed his view of himself, that is, of his ability to bargain successfully with the Soviets. Confident that he has demonstrated his toughness and resolve through confrontational rhetoric, an aggressive arms buildup, and a couple of minor military adventures, Reagan may now feel prepared to negotiate with his Soviet counterpart.
This is actually a rather common pattern in American administrations. Meaningful US-Soviet agreements have always required bargaining at the highest level. New presidents worry about the risks of appearing weak or indecisive to their Soviet counterparts, or worry that they will be duped by more experienced Soviet negotiators. Hence they are inclined to begin with a tough stance and move to more accommodative policies after they feel confident they have projected an image of resolve and have the experience to negotiate with the Soviets.
Consider Dwight Eisenhower, who began the first real thaw in postwar US-Soviet relations. He presided over an administration that spent three years talking about ``rolling back'' communism in Eastern Europe, or ``going to the brink'' of nuclear war to demonstrate its resolve to the Soviets, before launching the summit meetings that led to the ``spirit of Camp David'' in his second term.
John F. Kennedy met with Nikita Khrushchev early on in his presidency, but he came away from that first meeting in Vienna worried that he had appeared indecisive, that he had been outbargained by Khrushchev. Not until two years and two severe Soviet-American crises had passed did Kennedy deliver his call for a ``world safe for diversity'' at American University, and followed it with the negotiations that led to the first nuclear test ban treaty. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, waited three years before meeting with then Soviet President Alexei Kosygin in 1967.
Richard Nixon entered the White House with experience in dealing with the Soviets dating from his ``kitchen debate'' with Khrushchev back in the Eisenhower administration. But even his first summit meeting with Leonid Brezhnev did not come until near the end of his first term, in 1972. That meeting, however, led to the SALT I accords, and it was Nixon, the old ``Red baiter,'' and Henry Kissinger, who at the time described the Soviet leadership as a band of ``ruthless opportunists,'' who set the stage for the era of d'etente that lasted through the 1970s, until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
All of this suggests three things: (1) President Reagan's obsession with demonstrating American toughness and resolve before dealing with the Soviets differs only in degree from his predecessors'; (2) he is running close to their time schedules in seeking an easing of tensions and better relations with the Soviets; (3) a dark view of Soviet intentions and action need not be an obstacle to d'etente, provided the President has confidence in his ability to bargain effectively with Soviet leaders.
This is not to say that we can look forward with confidence to a new era of d'etente -- let alone a nuclear arms control agreement. Reagan's professed ideological aversion to the Soviets goes beyond that of his predecessors, and the degree of mutual suspicion and distrust remains high. But his choice of the highly experienced Paul Nitze as arms control adviser for this week's Geneva meeting suggested that the President sought something more than just another propaganda exchange. Nitze shares Reagan's views regarding Soviet motives and behavior, but he has exhibited enough self-confidence in his own bargaining abilities to be willing to make a deal. Perhaps it will not be long before the President feels ready to do so himself. When he does, we may once again enjoy the benefits of d'etente, by whatever name it will be called.
Russell J. Leng is professor of political science and chairman of the Division of Social Sciences at Middlebury College.