Geneva — The two superpowers are finally holding their noses and dealing with each other -- not because they want to, but because they have to if they are to survive in the nuclear era. Despite the continued news blackout, this seems to be the message emerging on the second day of summit talks between President Reagan and Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Both sides seem to be making a genuine effort to grope toward more ambitious arms control than has ever before been attempted -- and to do so despite their continuing mutual antipathy.
It's linkage of a sort, and a tricky business. It requires both sides to think through their priorities, to admit they are not going to usher in an age of harmony but are going to be locked in an adversarial relationship for a long time; then, however, to go on to reduce the dangers that that confrontation could ever go nuclear.
The last effort to manage the relationship in this fash-ion -- the d'etente of the 1970s -- failed. Will the new attempt fare any better? Will the ``new beginning'' that both sides say they want create a relationship mature enough this time to survive their fierce continued rivalry?
Washington's affirmative answer would be that Mr. Reagan brings to the incipient rapprochement an America strong enough to hold its own -- and at the same time brings enough ``realism'' about Moscow to prevent dangerous euphoria at home or misjudgment of American will in Moscow. The United States has recovered from the trauma of Vietnam, Watergate, and the oil crisis, and Moscow knows that it can't push Washington around.
Moscow's reciprocal answer would be that Mr. Gorbachev's Soviet Union is reviving from stagnation fast enough -- and has a sufficiently vigorous new leadership after years of elderly and ill party chiefs -- to prevent bullying by the US.
To this the US would add that there is now new caution in Moscow. For the first time in Soviet history the Kremlin feels pressed by long-term crisis in its economy and in its empire. It needs a quiet spell abroad to solve problems at home.
To this the Soviet Union would add that Washington is learning that it can't push Moscow around, and that all Reagan's belligerence and jokes about bombing the Soviet Union won him nothing.
Both might add the hope that they were burned badly enough by the disastrous end of d'etente to have learned some lessons for today.
Back in the 1970s a negative kind of linkage worked all too well.
Arms control was the central pillar of the whole set of eased relations dubbed d'etente. And when the Soviets intervened militarily in Angola, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan it angered the US Senate and doomed not only broad d'etente, but also specific arms control.
SALT II, as the saying had it, was lost in the sands of Ogaden.
This may have fit Moscow's perception of itself as rising and the US as declining in a shifting ``correlation of forces,'' as Soviet jargon put it.
And it may have suited Moscow's sense of mission in spreading revolution.
But it also meant that Moscow badly skewed its own self-interest. It sacrificed stabilization of its existential nuclear relationship with the US to marginal and ephemeral gains in Africa. It defeated US ratification of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II). It probably speeded the conservative resurgence in the US that elected Ronald Reagan on a party platform of seeking military superiority over the Soviet Union. It triggered a dramatic rise in US defense budgets. It stimulated Reagan' s plans for research into space-based strategic defense that Moscow so loathes.
And when the US reacted, the Soviets counterreacted. They said they would never deal with Reagan. They gave as good as they got in the name-calling.
The conspicuous end to this name-calling as Reagan and Gorbachev keep slipping away from official summit sessions for private chats hardly ensures the success of their search for a new modus vivendi. But it does signal the new start they're both promoting.
For the Rand Corporation's Arnold Horelick, former chief analyst of the Soviet Union for the Central Intelligence Agency, any new start will have a chance of succeeding only if it corrects the mistakes of the 1970s. This means first and foremost that both the Soviet Union and the US must learn that the other superpower, whatever its temporary adversities, is still a superpower, and should not be kicked while it is down.
In this year's review of ``America and the World'' in the magazine Foreign Affairs, Mr. Horelick wrote about Moscow's mistake in setting off a US ``backlash'' by ``greedy strategic behavior and Third World assertiveness in a time of US adversity, disarray, and distraction.''
He warned, ``We would do well to heed the lessons of the second half of the 1970s now being learned to their regret by the Soviets: don't kick a superpower when it is down. It is better in the long run to make it an offer it could accept but which it concludes is in its best interests to accept.''
He goes on to say that such an offer ``must also be sensitive to Soviet strategic anxieties, which are growing; it must promise Moscow a more acceptable outcome in the mid-term than the Soviets could expect from a totally unregulated strategic competition. It should communicate US determination to shape an international environment that is increasingly less hospitable to Soviet aggrandizement, but that is not so implacably hostile as to signal that Soviet self-restraint would remain unreciprocated.''
It remains to be seen if this sort of reasoning will now become the guideline in Washington and Moscow. It's not the kind of approach that has hitherto been favored either by the Reagan administration or the Kremlin. Toughness has generally been preferred.
But the hints at the Geneva summit so far are that such advice is now coming into increasing vogue.