AT a measured pace, the United States seems to be moving toward an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. If this all proceeds on track, at some point not yet entirely clear we will see Mikhail Gorbachev on American soil, engaging in a summit meeting with President Reagan. Mr. Gorbachev's trip will dominate America's newspapers, its airwaves, and its TV screens. Stories and pictures will chronicle his visits to factories and national monuments. He will joust smilingly with American reporters. The networks will vie for his appearance on talk shows.
His wife, Raisa, will be profiled in the newspapers' ``style'' sections, and we will all be treated to detailed accounts of the various ensembles she wears. A bedazzled press will surround the occasion with the euphoria Americans usually bestow on visiting royalty.
We can survive all this, and getting to know the Gorbachevs better is probably worthwhile. Certainly getting a good arms control agreement is a positive step for the US, the USSR, and the world.
But it is probably wise to maintain a little perspective on the kind of society the USSR is, however warm and human the image the Gorbachevs may project.
There is no question that it is a society to which Gorbachev has brought a breath of fresh air. The regime in Moscow has long been headed by elderly and incapacitated leaders, unable to inject any dynamic initiatives into the Soviet-US relationship.
Clearly that has changed. We now have a younger and more energetic Soviet leader, with a distinct sense of mission - and a great deal of self-confidence.
The mission is to transform the USSR from an economically muscle-bound and backward empire into a modern state. Its economy under Marxism is stultified, its people disillusioned and lacking in some of the necessities of life, let alone the luxuries.
Sometimes we are mesmerized by the military might and the nuclear arsenal of the USSR, which is immensely impressive. But take that away, and the Soviets have a considerable way to go before becoming a true economic superpower.
It was to help transform this society that Gorbachev invented glasnost, or openness. Gorbachev knew he would face obstruction from an entrenched party bureaucracy. So he is attempting revolution from above, rather than below. Glasnost is intended to open up thinking, to corral the support of the intellectuals, the writers, the journalists, and to impose reform on a system resistant to change.
We should be under no illusion that Gorbachev is dumping communism, abandoning socialism. To the contrary, as he has made clear in his public statements, the aim is to make the USSR a better and stronger nation under communism.
The aim is not to introduce American-style democracy to the USSR but to strengthen the control of the Communist Party by building the economy and proving that socialism can fulfill the expectations of the somewhat disillusioned masses.
In the past, the USSR has been a country where the regime has had a monopoly on the information flow. It has been a society hobbled by secrecy, where the regime kept power by fear and force and where the lie has ofttimes been more prevalent than the truth.
Glasnost is going to change this somewhat. But glasnost is not openness in the sense that we in the West understand openness. It is an instrument for change that the ruling regime wants to make.
It is important to bear in mind the character of Soviet society and the motivation of its new leadership as we prepare for a new chapter in the history of the Soviet-US relationship.