THE dramatic series of foreign policy initiatives launched by Mikhail Gorbachev - ranging from arms control to human rights - has left many in the West wondering about the deeper motivations. Many have dismissed them as simply ``tactical'' adjustments, the pursuit of age-old objectives under new names. The analysis of Soviet foreign policy always warrants the greatest caution. Yet there is equal if not greater danger in underestimating the extent of movement in Soviet international policy, as the United States debacle at the Reykjavik summit and the self-inflicted allied paralysis on the intermediate-range nuclear forces issue convincingly illustrate.
The key changes in Soviet perspectives on international affairs have been identified by a bipartisan task force on Soviet foreign policy convened under the auspices of the Institute for East-West Security Studies. The group's report highlights five areas in which the Soviets have reevaluated orthodox positions:
The Soviet leadership has concluded that the Soviet Union's international relationships should be subordinated to the prime task of economic modernization at home. Mr. Gorbachev's desire for domestic reform has led him to search for structures of stability in critical areas - in arms control, most visibly - which would provide a durable and predictable framework for the resource choices that must be made. The need for such stability assumes double importance for Gorbachev, since instability in the USSR's foreign relations could affect not only the politics of resource allocation but the viability of Gorbachev's own political position.
The Gorbachev leadership has concluded that a favorable international environment can be created only on the basis of a political accommodation with the leading industrial powers - above all with the US, still the focal point of Soviet attention in foreign affairs. The Soviet choice for accommodation thus represents more than a ``tactical'' adjustment to shifting circumstances, the ``breathing spell'' that some in the West have detected. Rather, it reflects a strategic reevaluation of the international environment and of the factors affecting the USSR's global position.
There has been a major reexamination of security issues. Top Soviet officials, including military officials, stress that a nuclear war cannot under any circumstances be won. As a corollary, the leadership now argues, with implicit criticism of Soviet security policy under Leonid Brezhnev, that security cannot be obtained by military means alone. Security in the nuclear age is said to be mutual in character and, because of the destructive potential of modern weaponry, a common concern of all countries. Relatedly, Soviet policy analysts and Gorbachev himself claim to reject nuclear weapons as a durable guarantor of peace. They assert that even nuclear parity, which they continue to regard as a major historical achievement of communism, could cease to be capable of enduring stability in the face of unregulated arms competition between East and West. Nuclear arms control thus assumes priority as a means of reducing the external threat, limiting resource requirements for the military, and establishing a framework of stability in East-West strategic relations.
The Soviet concept of peaceful coexistence is being revised. Key Soviet policy analysts now interpret peaceful coexistence less as a form of class struggle - the traditional Soviet viewpoint - and more as a long-lasting condition in which states with different social and political systems will have to learn how to live with each other for the indefinite future. As Yevgeny Primakov, a close adviser to Gorbachev, recently noted in a key article in Pravda, peaceful coexistence is no longer regarded ``as a breathing space'' by the Soviets. ``Interstate relations,'' he emphasized, ``cannot be the sphere in which the outcome of the confrontation between world socialism and world capitalism is settled.''
The Gorbachev leadership evidences increasing recognition of the multipolar and interdependent character of contemporary international relations. This view is reflected in a growing tendency on the part of the USSR to deal directly with key regional actors, such as China and Japan in the Far East, Egypt and Israel in the Middle East, and Mexico in Central America. The main goal has been to reduce the USSR's diplomatic isolation, which was increasingly evident in the late Brezhnev era, and to multiply Soviet options.
The report thus indicates that behind Gorbachev's tactical ingenuity lies a far more sophisticated view of international politics and foreign policy than we have come to expect of Soviet leaders.
A more subtle and flexible Soviet diplomacy requires the West to develop a broader and more active policy toward the USSR, including standards to define and meet common security requirements in a rapidly changing international environment. Failure to do so would sacrifice the initiative to the USSR and forfeit opportunities to encourage the further adaptation of Soviet power. It would also mean abdicating the West's responsibility to future generations to pursue improved relations between East and West.
Michael Forrestal, a partner of Shearman & Sterling, is a member of the Institute for East-West Security Studies' Task Force on Soviet New Thinking, a bipartisan group including advisers to many of the 1988 presidential candidates. Allen Lynch is deputy director of studies at the institute and task force rapporteur.