RONALD REAGAN and Mikhail Gorbachev have endorsed people-to-people exchanges. In the joint statement of their Washington summit, the two leaders also took note of the progress made in carrying out the exchange agreement signed at their 1985 Geneva summit and agreed to ``continued efforts to eliminate obstacles to further progress in these areas.'' United States-Soviet exchanges have entered a new era of expansion. As more Americans and Soviets establish contact, it is prudent to consider why each government has endorsed these exchanges and what each expects from them.
When US-Soviet exchanges began in 1958, enthusiasm for people-to-people exchanges was not shared by the Soviets. Their main objective, then and now, was to acquire Western technology to help develop their backward economy. Stalin's successors have recognized that it is cheaper and faster to buy or barter advanced technology abroad than to develop it at home.
The US, however, wanted exchanges of people, information, and ideas to help bring about changes in Soviet society and to moderate Soviet behavior abroad and at home.
In signing the first cultural agreement, the Soviets accepted a package that included the people, information, and ideas sought by the US, as well as the science and technology they wanted.
Nikita Khrushchev, in his memoirs, summarized US objectives:
``The Americans wanted a much broader exchange of tourists, scientists, and students ... to make us open our borders, to increase the flow of people back and forth.''
Thirty years later the Soviets have endorsed people-to-people exchanges, albeit under controlled conditions, and are pursuing them with traditional Russian enthusiasm. Why the change?
Politics has a primacy in all Soviet thought and action, and cultural exchange is no exception. When US-Soviet exchanges began, the Soviets preferred to conduct them on a government-to-government basis. In the 1970s, during d'etente, they discovered the American private sector, the main US player in cultural exchanges, and began to work with it directly. As they gained confidence in their ability to manage these exchanges, the Soviets increased their cooperation with US citizen groups, particularly those involved with the peace movement.
Citizen exchanges are one aspect of the public relations campaign Mr. Gorbachev is waging to support his programs of cooperation with the West, restructuring at home, and peace and friendship everywhere. Americans are responding with enthusiasm.
Citizen exchanges fall into two categories. Among the older and more established are the Dartmouth Conferences and the Parallel Studies Program of the United Nations Association of the United States, which conduct high-level meetings on such issues as arms control, international politics and economics, and regional conflicts. Both sides find these unofficial meetings useful, because they are able to speak more freely about current issues than in official talks. Moreover, these meetings serve as sounding boards for future actions by each government. The Soviets also appreciate the insight these meetings afford into the thinking of Americans who may fill high posts in the next administration.
The other category of citizen exchanges concerns Americans, often at the grass-roots level, without expertise on the Soviet Union or international affairs, but committed to the need, and indeed duty, for private citizens to work for peace and understanding.
More than 200 US citizen groups are now active in exchanges with the Soviet Union. For many of them, peace is a principal objective: Athletes United for Peace, International Peace Walk, Peace Child Foundation, Peace Fleece, Peace Links, US/USSR Bridges for Peace, Volunteers for Peace, and even an ice cream exchange, appropriately called ``Building of Peace - One Scoop at a Time.''
Citizen initiatives, international activism, and public diplomacy are an American tradition, and citizen efforts to prevent nuclear war and increase mutual understanding deserve support. These efforts, however, can lend themselves to political manipulation by the Soviets, who are delighted to be able to bring their political message directly to the American people.
Three ground rules apply to these exchanges - as specified in the US-Soviet cultural agreement: ``equality, mutual benefit, and reciprocity.'' Equality, inserted at Soviet request, indicates that the two sides in an exchange participate as equals. Mutual benefit implies that each side should benefit - in its own way - from an exchange. Reciprocity means two-way exchanges - Americans to the USSR and Soviets to the US.
Americans should also try to avoid meeting with the same Moscow bureaucrats and party faithful whom the Soviets usually trot out for foreign visitors. A few Moscow institutes have a near-monopoly on exchanges with US citizen groups, and they control whom the Americans see and what they do in the USSR. Citizen groups should try to break out of this routine.
Mir i druzhba (peace and friendship) should be approached with caution. A slogan often used by the Soviets, it is a useful way to start an exchange. Americans need to sit down and talk with the Soviets, but not to gloss over what divides us in our history, culture, values, and national interests. These are the barriers - which Gorbachev himself has admitted exist - which need to be bridged before there can be genuine understanding. Mir i druzhba alone does not help much.
Americans should also know what they wish to accomplish through an exchange. Their Soviet partners will certainly know what their own objectives are.
The late Walter Stoessel, a US career diplomat and former ambassador to Moscow, advised nonofficial exchange groups to prepare for their sessions with the Soviets ``with care and thoroughness ... and always be on guard against being used for purposes of Soviet propaganda.'' If such advice is followed, Mr. Stoessel added, ``nonofficial exchanges can play a positive role in overall US-Soviet relations.''
Yale Richmond, a retired Foreign Service officer and author of ``US-Soviet Cultural Exchanges, 1958-1986: Who Wins?'' ( Westview Press), worked for 20 years on Soviet and East European exchanges.