PRESIDENT Reagan begins his second term with an opportunity that is unique in American history. Time and circumstance have placed in his hands the tools to carry out a successful peace initiative. As one who has opposed parts of Mr. Reagan's domestic program, I'd like very much to help him win a place in history as the President who put a stop to the dangerously escalating arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Most members of Congress would like to help him do just that.
Put these facts in perspective: In the absense of some dramatic change, we face annual budget deficits in excess of $200 billion for the foreseeable future. The total discretionary domestic expenditures is only about $168 billion, and there is little left to squeeze. Mr. Reagan promised no social security cuts and no increase in taxes. But Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger wants $313 billion next year, and more than $1 trillion over the next three years, for the military.
The Russians, too, are groaning under the economic pressures of a leapfrogging arms race as each nation strains to outdo the other in ever more sophisticated and ever more costly weaponry. The only fiscal relief in sight lies in our summoning the wisdom to negotiate a sensible slowdown in this military spending spree.
In a number of important ways, Ronald Reagan is better equipped to carry out this feat than any of his recent predecessors. Fresh from an electoral landslide of historic proportions, he has a mandate with few strings attached. His 49-state sweep makes him virtually a free agent, unbeholden to any interest group. With few political IOUs, this President could rise above the petty partisan tugs of war that always afflict domestic politics.
By summoning his considerable personal appeal and persuasive talents in a relentless campaign of waging peace, Ronald Reagan could become a truly nonpartisan leader, the President of us all. Waging peace is not a partisan pursuit, but a bipartisan imperative.
Some may scoff at the idea of ``Reagan the Peacemaker,'' arguing that his harsh anticommunist rhetoric and ardent advocacy of military power equip him poorly for the role. Precisely the reverse may be true.
It is an interesting irony of history that Richard Nixon, with his record of unremitting hostility toward Soviet and Chinese communism, did what a Democratic president probably could not have done without suffering vicious personal abuse from the radical right.
For the very reason that President Nixon's anticommunism was not suspect, he was able to launch an era of d'etente with the Soviets and open the door to China, peeling back thick layers of suspicion which for an entire generation had encased the Chinese behind a wall of isolation more impenetrable than the Great Wall itself.
In the process, President Nixon uncovered a solid core of humanity in China that transcended ideological differences and now provides the basis not only for the thaw in our bilateral relations, but also for the sprouting of at least a few flowers of free enterprise in the former desert of Maoist orthodoxy.
And let us not forget that it was Anwar Sadat, previously known only as a military leader against the Israelis, who carried out the boldest peace initiative of all in his dramatic trip to Jerusalem. The warrior's war-weary gesture led to his signing the current treaty of peace between Egypt and Israel, parties to history's longest recorded enmity.
These examples suggest that hard-liners, once committed to the cause, can be effective peacemakers. At least the adversary is under no illusions of their lack of toughness.
Such a course for Ronald Reagan would require no loss of face, nor even a tacit confession that he's been wrong in the past. He could make a strong case, in fact, that it was his very intractability and his demonstrated willingness to spend more than seemed prudent or even politically expedient for national security that finally brought the Russians around. Whether or not this be the case, there are signs that they are ready to talk seriously.
The world today spends twice as much on arms as it spends on food, five times as much as it spends on housing. The superpowers together possess more than 40,000 nuclear warheads, with a total destructive capacity 1 million times as great as the bomb that devastated Hiroshima. Each side will spend roughly $300 billion this year on the unproductive implements of terror. Neither side can afford the drain upon its scarce resources while people in both countries go hungry and legitimate needs of every sort are unmet.
Every day during 1984, the world's military budgets consumed close to $2 billion; and every day some 44,000 people died for want of food or relatively inexpensive health care.
The utter waste of our substance on more weapons in the face of such overwhelming human suffering suggest that a grotesque immorality has somehow taken hold of the world. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower understood the moral problem and the brutish economics of displacement. Four decades ago, in the shadow of World War II, he said:
``Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.''
The arms control talks in Geneva offer an unprecedented opportunity for the kind of leadership Ronald Reagan could provide. The ingredients for peace are available: All he needs is the right recipe.
At the risk of grave presumption, let me suggest that President Reagan invite the Russians to join with us in an emergency humanitarian foodlift, in unarmed aircraft from both our nations, to relieve the famine that currently besets much of the African continent.
Then, perhaps he could publicly propose to the Soviet Union that each of us reduce our planned military expenditures for this coming year by 10 percent -- roughly $30 billion. The President might then suggest that we jointly place half that money into a common fund, to be administered by an impartial international agency and used to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, educate the illiterate, eradicate disease, and care for the sick of the world.
The rest of our saving could apply to deficit reduction. If our two nations then could negotiate a verifiable way to reduce military expenditures by comparable amounts for the next five years, we could not only restore a degree of fiscal sanity to our own national budget. We'd have more left in both countries for medical research, for libraries, for our decaying public infrastructure, for all the ennobling things that elevate the human race.
Four years ago, Ronald Reagan came to the presidency proclaiming his desire to make ``A New Beginning.'' That very phrase was used with special poignancy many centuries before by Aristophanes. As he walked among the ruins of the Greek temples destroyed by Peloponnesian wars, Aristophanes uttered a prayer that might befit our quest for peace in the year ahead: From the murmur and subtlety of suspicion With which we vex one another, Give us rest; Make a new beginning And mingle again the kindred of the nations In the alchemy of love; And with some finer essence of forebearance Temper our minds.
US Rep. Jim Wright is majority leader of the House of Representatives.