The current worsening of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union finds the Kremlin holding a considerable advantage in the basic conduct of day-to-day diplomatic affairs.
The usual practice between any two nations is for each to have an embassy in the other's capital, and to use the embassy for two purposes: to relay its own precise views, and to obtain and report back the views and the attitudes of the other side.
Indeed, that is the way the Soviet Union uses its large embassy in Washington. Its ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, has been in the US so long he is dean (senior member) of the diplomatic corps in Washington. He speaks fluent English, sees Secretary of State Cyrus Vance often, conveys Soviet views, and reports to the Kremlin on US policies.
But the White House and the State Department do not use the US Embassy on Moscow's Garden Ring Road the same way.
The embassy fulfills the second role: studies the press, talks to as many officials as it can, and relays its findings to Washington.
But it is not asked to fulfill the other key part of diplomacy: to relay, constantly and precisely, the attitudes and nuances of American positions to the Soviets. That is done in Washington, by the president and the secretary of state, through Mr. Dobrynin. It is Washington's choice -- and it has been criticized by a number of American diplomats both here and in Washington as potentially dangerous.
It assumes that Mr. Dobrynin invariably will relay every precise American nuance to the Kremlin -- and US diplomats have said in the past they know of cases where this has not been done. And it means the US ambassador in Moscow lacks the continual access to senior Soviet officials that Mr. Dobrynin has to American officials. In the closed Soviet society, where access is strictly limited anyway, to give away the chance for a US ambassador to see and to measure the Soviet foreign minister or party leader on a regular basis strikes a number of diplomats and other Westerners here as unwise.
Washington's reluctance stems largely from the Nixon presidency, when he and Henry Kissinger distrusted the State Department and wanted to keep communications in their own hands. Efforts by Malcolm Toon, who was then the head of the Soviet desk in the State Department, and others to use the US Embassy in Moscow as an equal partner, as a "double track" to relay US policy to the Kremlin, failed when the White House decided the other way.
When Mr. Toon came to Moscow as ambassador in 1976 after 30 years in the diplomatic service, he tried mightily to change the system again. For a while he partially succeeded. He became one of the five-man inner circle of strategic-arms negotiators, thus plugging the embassy back into the SALT talks. Before Mr. Toon arrived, the embassy was unplugged. Previous ambassadors read about arms talks in cables or in the newspapers.
Mr. Toon also sent in a vigorous stream of hard-nosed policy suggestions, some of which clashed with the softer Carter views of the time -- views Mr. Carter has changed following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
His very outspokenness may have blunted Mr. Toon's effectiveness. His reputation for intensely disliking the Soviet system meant that, although Russian leaders respected him for his experience and status, they refused to give him any access beyond the limited amount Washington asked for in formal meetings.
When he left here last October, Mr. Toon told this newspaper in an interview that Washington used Mr. Dobrynin too much and the US ambassador in Moscow too little. Many US diplomats privately agreed.
Now Mr. Toon has been replaced by an extremely wealthy, kindly, US businessman with no previous experience in diplomacy or in dealing with Soviet affairs day by day. He is Thomas J. Watson, former board chairman of the IBM Corporation.
It is too early to judge whether Mr. Watson's unfamiliarity with embassy and Soviet procedures will reduce his effectiveness. He has a large embassy staff to rely on.
But unless President Carter relies less on Mr. Dobrynin and more on Mr. Watson to convey his views, Mr. Watson's access to Soviet leaders will be no more than Mr. Toon's, and could be less.
Washington evidently hoped in October that by replacing the tough-minded Mr. Toon with the kindlier, older Mr. Watson, a symbol of the big-business expertise and high-technology computers the Russians want, the way would be opened for a new era of detente.
Yet a number of diplomats and observers believe the Moscow embassy is much too sensitive to put in the hands of a man with no diplomatic experience, no matter who he is.
Now, with Soviet troops in Afghanistan, detente is at its lowest ebb for decades. When Mr. Watson called on Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in late January, it was to relay Washington's criticisms and to hear Moscow's.
Gone for months to come is the hope of "making Spaso House sparkle" as Mr. Watson originally wanted to do -- turning the residence of the US ambassador into a salon where Russians and Americans would mingle in a renaissance of detente.
Mr. Watson is having to adjust, quickly -- to be "a chameleon" as he told his staff in a recent meeting. He has run into unfavorable press reaction, stemming from an initial inability to remember the names of various Afghan leaders and a clear impression that he was not yet deeply involved with the nuances of Russian policies and life.
He is determined to do better, to come to grips with the new situation. He is committed to the idea of arms control through previous work on presidential commissions. He is seriously worried that, with SALT II in abeyance, no one quite knows what restraints still apply to the nuclear arms race.
A number of sources in the embassy, all of whom like Mr. Watson as a person, feel a professional diplomat would be much better equipped to handle the current critical situation.
Mr. Watson is out to prove them wrong. Given his inexperience in diplomacy, he has a tough job ahead.