AS a result of the recent Geneva summit, the Americans and Soviets will soon be discussing regional issues, including the tragedy of Afghanistan, where well over 500,000 Afghans have died as a result of the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the subsequent brutal Soviet military occupation that has continued since then. At the summit, Mikhail Gorbachev made comments to President Reagan on Afghanistan that some characterized as ``different'' or ``intriguing,'' implying that Moscow may change its position on Afghanistan and withdraw its forces. Before going overboard on such an optimistic assumption, however, a look at history may instill a bit of caution.
Since World War II, Soviet expansionism has manifested itself not only in Afghanistan but in many other parts of the world through either:
Direct military takeovers in areas next to the Soviet Union with the imposition of puppet regimes, as in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan.
Aiding Marxist revolutionary movements elsewhere to gain power, thus producing client states that are dependent on Soviet aid, support Moscow's policies, and are themselves usually expansionist. Vietnam in Southeast Asia, Ethiopia in Africa, and Cuba and Nicaragua in Latin America are examples.
Because the dialectics of Soviet communism preach incessantly of the inevitable triumph throughout the world of Moscow's brand of ``socialism,'' and as a result of Soviet success in seeing its type of regime installed in various quarters of the globe, some attribute Soviet expansionism uniquely to ``communism.''
This is an oversimplification. While Soviet communism is definitely expansionist, because it must gain a dominant position in the world or eventually wither, Soviet expansionism is profoundly Russian and antedates Marxism.
It stems from past invasions of Russia, which created an almost paranoid Russian expansionist urge for ever larger buffer states on its borders, an urge that is exploited by the Soviet leadership.
Some years ago when I was serving in Austria, I had a chance to study in detail the records of the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic wars, in which Russia's expansionist intent was clearly demonstrated. There Czar Alexander I repeatedly sought Russian sovereignty over all of Poland and much of Eastern Europe.
Russian expansionist aims were expressed even more explicitly half a century later, in 1864, by Prince Gorchakov, Russian vice-chancellor and adviser to Czar Alexander II. In a memorandum to the czar describing Russian military operations in Central Asia -- a memo that seems almost as applicable to Soviet policy today as it was to czarist policy then -- Gorchakov points out that ``the interests of Russian security and commercial relations compel civilized states to exercise a certain ascendency over nei ghbors whose turbulence renders them both difficult to live with and troublesome. After curbing their incursions and depredations,'' he wrote, ``we are compelled to reduce the tribes on our frontier to more or less complete submission. Once this result is obtained they become less troublesome but in their turn they are exposed to the aggression of more distant tribes. The state must therefore make a choice: either give up this continuous effort and doom its borders to constant unrest . . . or else advance f urther into the heart of savage lands . . . .''
Thus the rationale for the salami tactics that European Russia has followed in past centuries in its relentless expansion southward toward the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, which it has always coveted, and westward toward China through intervention and then control of Outer Mongolia, now known as the ``Mongolian People's Republic.'' Today this basic Russian logic is used to justify Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Will it be used tomorrow to intervene in Iran and Pakistan?
So, as the US-Soviet talks on Afghanistan get under way, let us be realistic. But at the same time let us not be diverted publicly or privately, by a desire for better relations with the Soviets, from our fundamental purpose, which has overwhelming support even in the sometimes bland UN; namely, the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan and the right of the Afghans to have a government of their own choosing.
Douglas MacArthur II, a lecturer and consultant on international affairs, is a retired career ambassador.