THE Soviets are sending out loud if not always clear signals that they want to reduce superpower involvement in third-world crises and have recently shown a newfound enthusiasm for the United Nations peacekeeping function - apparently as a way of reducing direct pressure on their straitened resources. Such issues would seem to be a natural topic for the general secretary to raise in the December summit. Up to a point, there is reason for President Reagan to respond positively. Mikhail Gorbachev's priorities are domestic, and Moscow is deriving as much grief as benefit from many of its third-world involvements. Yet we learned in Angola and Ethiopia that the Soviets are not good at resisting temptation, and we cannot expect to be handed any policy triumphs. As regards the proposal to strengthen the UN, Mr. Gorbachev probably feels that the Soviet Union is better attuned to the automatic third-world majority than is the West, and that the world body's machinery can be made to work in ways that are favorable to Soviet interests, or at worst neutral.
He may not be far wrong. The United States is in a beleaguered position at the UN, and much of what comes out of the General Assembly, at least, is hostile to American concerns and to the broader international interests as Americans understand them. We have also learned from hard experience that leaving responsibility to the UN can lead to disaster.
This does not, however, mean that we should reject the Soviet approach out of hand. We face many of the same problems in the third world that they do, and we, too, stand to profit by strengthening the UN.
There are possibilities. Cyrus Vance and Elliot Richardson have suggested a UN naval force for the Persian Gulf. Beyond that, we must recognize that the UN is made up of individual states with regional interests independent of those of either superpower. The Contadora group in Central America, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the ``front line'' states of southern Africa are all trying to grapple with regional issues such as Nicaragua, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, and apartheid in South Africa, in ways that meet their needs. If they are successful, problems can be handled with much less cost to the US or to the Soviets, and in ways that do not draw superpowers into situations that they should not and often cannot control.
Article 52 of the UN Charter specifically directs the Security Council to encourage pacific settlement of local disputes through regional arrangements. As leaders of the most prominent Security Council members, Mr. Reagan and Gorbachev could usefully spend some time at the summit considering how this article might be adapted to the changed circumstances of the 1980s. Fostering responsible regionalism should benefit all concerned.
Since the Article 52 procedures involve the Security Council, where the US and the Soviets hold a veto, there is less danger from a majority in the General Assembly that enjoys the irresponsibility of impotence. The US and the USSR, for their part, will have to exercise a restraint that neither has shown in the past. Security management should be lodged primarily where it belongs, so that southern Africans, Southeast Asians, and Central Americans can work out the solutions they have to live with.
The results will not be spectacular - but they can hardly be worse than the sorry record of the UN as a peacekeeping organization and the often cynical exploitation of regional crises by the superpowers. If the Soviets are in a mood to pull back from meddling in the security problems of the third world, it behooves us to draw them out. Our strong points, after all, are in the economic and cultural fields, not the military. Anything we can do to focus competition on them will benefit us and the third world. If the Soviets think it is in their interest as well - that is hardly a reason for us to be against it.
Thomas Thornton is acting director of Soviet studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He is author of ``The Third World Challenge to US Policy: Global Responsibility and Regional Devolution'' (Westview Press, 1986).