THE sizing up of new Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze by the West in Helsinki this week so soon after a similar appraisal of his boss, Mikhail Gorbachev, understandably lends a spurt of interest to the generally stoic routine of Kremlin-watching. But two things stand out: Neither of the new Soviet foreign policy leaders have visited the soil of their American superpower counterparts, an unfamiliarity matched in the American President's lack of firsthand impressions of the Soviet empire.
The Shevardnadze-Gorbachev approach appears less likely to put Soviet foreign-policy weight so heavily in an East-West framework, as was the case under Shevardnadze's predecessor, Andrei Gromyko; this could be useful in securing some modest accord with the Reagan administration, which for its own reasons has lowered expectations for bargaining with the Soviets.
It could be argued that a lack of preoccupation with things American may not be bad if it matched the dimensions of the Reagan White House appetite for US-Soviet accords. In the more ambitious days of Kissinger-Nixon d'etente, the strong East-West emphasis had its uses -- until undermined by the kind of Soviet human rights and other abuses since pilloried at meetings under the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the 10th anniversary of which was observed at its original site this week. Viewing the world exc lusively as a bipolar struggle has had a negative side during the Reagan era: Rhetoric becameoverheated, negotiations froze. Mr. Reagan wants some positive agenda with the Soviets, but clearly not an ambitious d'etente agenda. The new Soviet team apparently wants to pursue its United States, European, and Asian interests on separate tracks. This necessarily reduces the scale of its Washington negotiations. With the two superpower chiefs meeting in Geneva this fall, a scaled-down match of aims could lead to a modest set of accords this year, including some agreement on arms control.
It is no doubt better not to set too much store by the personalities of new Soviet leaders. As Max Kampelman, recently chief US negotiator under the Helsinki Accords and now head of the US arms talks in Geneva, has put it: ``The leadership of the Soviet Union is serious. Its diplomats are serious and well trained, and they appear to be ideologically committed to Leninism. The comment of one Soviet diplomat to one of our arms control negotiators -- `We are neither philanthropists nor fools' -- tel ls much of their seriousness of purpose. Their response in a negotiation is motivated by one primary consideration: their perceived national interest.''
The essential conflict between East and West cannot be dismissed. The free democratic societies encircling the Soviet Union create ``a powerful draw and attraction for those who live under totalitarian rule,'' Kampelman observes: ``By example, democracies inevitably tend to subvert Soviet authority.''
From the West's point of view, a positive aspect of the Helsinki Accords has been the forum it has given for citing the dark Soviet record: slave labor camps; the use of psychiatric hospitals as political punishment; government-sponsored anti-Semitism; armed aggression in Afghanistan and Poland; religious persecution of evangelical Christians, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics; strangulation of scientific freedom; and the decimation of cultural and national heritages. Secretary of State George Shultz's criticisms of the Soviet human-rights record this week was in the tradition of such criticism under the Helsinki process and was clearly in order. Appreciated too was the secretary's support for continuation of the Helsinki framework; it has also afforded East and West delegates opportunity to engage in frank and often amiable private talks at times when other channels have shut down.
For his part, Mr. Shevardnadze's speech in Helsinki was relatively cautious. It should be noted that an aviation pact between Moscow, Washington, and Tokyo was announced during the Helsinki session. The pact covers the episode that plunged White House-Kremlin relations into a deep chill -- the downing of a South Korean airliner over Soviet territory in September 1983.
Too great expectations can carry their own danger of great disappointment. A period of modest agreements following on the aviation pact may offer the best course at this time.