AS time lengthens, a tragic irony becomes increasingly clear about the Nixon era. Reviled and disgraced for his handling of the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon nevertheless presided over what was often a constructive and successful foreign policy. His opening to China, for example, was a coup in its timing and its strategic innovation. Mr. Nixon has continued to meet with world leaders and to write and speak out on foreign policy. Many foreign policy experts find perception and wisdom in what he says. So his views on Mikhail Gorbachev and the new style of Soviet leadership are of import.
Nixon is setting out those views in his forthcoming book, ``1999: Victory Without War,'' portions of which were excerpted in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.
The essence of the Nixon thesis is that Mr. Gorbachev's charm, and an agreeable change of style in Moscow, have not changed Soviet international goals. He points out that Western observers have misjudged Soviet leaders before. After meeting Joseph Stalin, one American diplomat found his brown eyes wise and gentle, and wrote that ``a child would like to sit on his lap, and a dog would sidle up to him.'' Some wrote off Nikita Khrushchev as a country buffoon, and others dismissed Leonid Brezhnev for his earthiness and awkwardness. Yuri Andropov was hailed by some in the West as a kind of art-loving sophisticate. But, says Nixon, Stalin's gentle eyes could not mask his brutality, Khrushchev's peasant manners did not stop him from building the Berlin Wall, Brezhnev's clumsiness did not stop him from undertaking the greatest military buildup in world history, and Andropov's sophistication could not conceal his ruthless direction of the KGB.
Thus Nixon is contemptuous of those Western admirers who see Gorbachev as a moderate warring against Kremlin conservatives. To accept that view, he warns, would be leaving ourselves ``psychologically disarmed'' before the ``man who controls the most powerful armed forces in the world.''
Like his predecessors, Nixon contends, Gorbachev seeks to expand the influence and power of the Soviet Union. But this dedicated communist is the first Soviet leader to understand that his country suffers from fundamental internal problems. Without a growing economy, the USSR's international position will erode and its military power will atrophy. If all this is correct, and beneath Gorbachev's desire for a better working relationship with the United States there lurks the same old Soviet aggressiveness, what should the American posture be?
Nixon argues for realism. Because of innate differences, he says, the two superpowers ``can never be friends.'' But they ``cannot afford to be enemies.'' The former President urges clear definition of US goals within this context, and then skillful negotiating to achieve them. This involves linkage - not giving the Soviets what they want unless they concede on issues of priority for the US.
For instance, the Soviets have made arms control their first priority. But, says Nixon, arms deals should not be concluded unless the Soviets cooperate in reducing political tensions that are the root cause of conflict.
The price for US cooperation should be a reduction of Soviet repression at home and a halt to Soviet aggression abroad. Nixon says that those who ask whether Gorbachev sincerely wants peace beg the question. Gorbachev, in Nixon's view, does not want war. But he just as sincerely wants victory. The USSR seeks victory without war. If the US seeks peace without victory, it is doomed to defeat.
These are thoughts worth pondering from a man whose own foreign policy successes have been blurred by his domestic disgrace.