"Speak softly and leave all big sticks at home." This rewritten version of Teddy Roosevelt's motto is the kind of advice the Kremlin hopes US diplomats will apply at the renewed talks on European security -- detente, that is -- in Madrid.
But if the first day (Jan. 27) of the reconvened conference is anything to go by, the Kremlin's hopes may be dashed. Both superpowers made tough-sounding opening statements -- with the United States chief delegate, Ambassador Max Kampelman, denouncing the Soviet Union for its latest human rights violations.
Making the Reagan administration's position doubly plain, the American delegate threw back at the Russians their references to detente: "If the word has any significance, we must realize that it does not exist as an accurate description of East-West relations. It remains, however, an objective to be sought, yet to be achieved."
Should the Americans not prove obligingly docile as the conference proceeds, the Soviets would settle for some bickering between Washington and its European allies -- with the Europeans, seen here as more serious about detente, winning the day.
For the Soviets, the Madrid conference will be scrutinized as an early test of the new Reagan administration's foreign policy, toward both Moscow and Western Europe.
Diplomats in Moscow suspect the Soviets are particularly keen on encouraging fissures in the Western alliance at a time of stubborn labor unrest in Poland.
The Kremlin is still seen as reluctant to undertake direct, full-scale military intervention in Poland, if it feels this can be avoided. But from the vantage point of Moscow, things in Warsaw don't seem to be getting much better. Reports carried by the official Soviet news media are, if anything, getting tougher.
"One potential means of escalating involvement for the Soviets without utterly destroying detente, in their view, might be something short of a full invasion . . . with the hope of undermining a categorical, unified, Western response," one diplomat remarked privately.
In Madrid, meanwhile, the Soviets appear to hope for at least some European openness to their pet project: a European "detente and disarmament" conference. Unless such a conference was convened, Soviet chief delegate Leonid Ilyichov asserted in his opening comments, detente would be badly damaged.
Another Soviet policy priority is to seek expanding commercial and other exchanges with the West Europeans, especially in view of current US trade sanctions.
The Carter administration had brushed aside this kind of Soviet approach as a mere propaganda umbrella for continued Soviet armament, aggression, and repression.
The Kremlin attitude toward part one of the Madrid conference, a stormy six-week session that ended around Christmas, might best be described as: "grin and bear it" . . . minus the grinning.
With the now-departed Carter administration setting the tone, Western delegates lambasted the Soviets on human-rights violations and other perceived frontal assaults on detente, such as the invasion of Afghanistan.
"Secondary . . . provocative," harrumphed the Soviet foreign affairs weekly New Times.
But the Soviets clearly have been hoping for quite different results from part two of the Madrid conference, intended to consider literally dozens of specific proposals raised in the opening session. There is, after all, a new man in the White House. Soviet leaders know his reputation as a hard-liner. But if the Soviet media and privately expressed views of some officials are any indication, Moscow has not given up on him completely.
The daily newspaper Soviet Russia, in a Jan. 27 commentary, took a hefty swipe at the Carter administration's handling of the first round of discussions. But the journal asked: "Perhaps now, with the arrival of a new chief in the White House, the approach . . . will change?"
That, in Soviet shorthand, seemed to mean: OK, Mr. Reagan, you don't agree with some of our policies. But we feel the same way about you. Why not be "constructive"? Don't sacrifice detente on "minor issues." And if you must disagree, disagree quietly.
The conference's opening salvos, at least, are likely to disappoint the Kremlin.