WHEN good things happen in the world of international politics, an American president might as well take credit for them. So it is not surprising to hear from the Reagan administration that its firmness and resolution, and its determination to go ahead with the deployment of nuclear weapons despite public protests, are the reasons that an intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) agreement was signed Tuesday. This view is comforting, for it puts us where we like to see ourselves - in the driver's seat of history. But it is a dangerous delusion, for it may prevent us from learning valuable lessons from the long and tortuous trail to the INF treaty.
Simply put, the primary contribution of the United States to the treaty consisted in showing up at the table with a negotiating position in 1981, and not walking away in 1986 when the Soviet Union decided it wanted a deal.
Away from the table, the US deployed Pershing 2 and cruise missiles in Europe in 1983. This provoked a Soviet walkout. That deployment is now celebrated in the West as a step that made the current agreement possible. But without new Soviet leadership, the US missiles would more likely have torpedoed any chance at an agreement.
Reagan administration officials now admit they never expected the USSR to accept the initial US negotiating position. And the US never budged. It made no significant concessions during the entire course of the talks.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev, meanwhile, the USSR dropped one demand after the other. The rapidly growing arsenal of French and British nuclear missiles will be untouched by the treaty. The USSR will destroy SS-20 missiles based in the Far East as well as Europe, eliminating about four times as many warheads as the US. A Soviet superiority in shorter-range missiles will disappear as well. Most surprisingly, the new Soviet leadership accepted verification of unprecedented strictness - so strict, in fact, that the US backed away from some of its own proposals when Mr. Gorbachev said ``da.''
The INF treaty was achieved on American terms, but on the initiative and at the insistence of the USSR. President Reagan and the rest of NATO played an essentially passive role.
If an US president had made a similar series of concessions, Congress would be in an uproar. But Soviet leaders have apparently decided to live with a deal in which - at least in arms accounting terms - they get the short end of the stick.
Is the Soviet leadership desperate to redirect spending from military to civilian projects? Perhaps, but the fiscal benefits of eliminating these nuclear forces are tiny, as Congress will discover. Nor can one seriously think that the US suddenly learned how to bludgeon the Soviets into diplomatic submission just as the Reagan presidency began to totter.
The key to the Soviets' newfound flexibility is an apparent shift in attitudes. Recent statements by Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders on ``reasonable sufficiency'' in defense remind Westerners of Robert McNamara's attempt to reform the Pentagon in the 1960s, as he asked the armed services, ``How much is enough?''
Other themes in recent Soviet writings are reminiscent of the ``common security'' ideas promoted by Olof Palme, former prime minister of Sweden. National security cannot be a zero-sum game, said Mr. Palme, for a nation can truly guarantee its own security only through cooperative arrangements that also promote the safety of its potential enemies.
This approach to arms control and security policy is prevalent throughout the political center and left in much of Western Europe - most prominently in West Germany. Defense intellectuals in the US rarely disguise their contempt for such ideas, calling them Utopian and unrealistic. But in the wake of the INF accord, it may be the ``realists'' who are out of touch with reality.
If US policymakers refuse to explore the implications of this shift in Soviet attitudes, and attempt simply to drive ever harder bargains in future negotiations, they may lose a historic opportunity to secure future stability in East-West relations. At best, such tactics waste time and ignore prospects for fundamental improvements. At worst, they could help discredit attempts to achieve real progress in relations between the USSR and the US, inviting a tragic backlash.
Daniel Charles is author of ``Nuclear Planning in NATO'' and contributing writer for Spacewatch Fortnightly in Washington, D.C.