Leaping into Leonid Brezhnev's arms following his call for a Soviet-American summit meeting would be foolish. Any diplomatic gambit by Moscow must be carefully screened for its propaganda content and self-serving purposes. Mr. Brezhnev's proposal for a moratorium on new medium-range nuclear missiles for NATO and the Warsaw Pact is a case in point. The fact is, NATO today is at a disadvantage because of the powerful Soviet missiles targeted on Western Europe. The recent NATO decision to deploy some 600 Pershing and cruise missiles is precisely to equalize the present Soviet edge. Talk of a moratorium at this stage therefore would throw the balance to the Russians.
However, it would be imprudent for the US to reject this and other Brezhnev proposals outright. Soviet party congresses are often the forum for enunciating new Kremlin policy. Such was the case with the 24th congress in 1971, for instance, which laid the ground for East-West detente. The present parley in Moscow looks to be less momentous. But the long speech Mr. Brezhnev delivered to it needs to be studied in Washington, and its nuances quietly probed by Western diplomats. Does it in fact offer possibilities for resuming a Soviet-US dialogue and solving the acute problems that have soured detente?
To plunge into a summit meeting without adequate preparation and before the new US administration has worked out its policies is unthinkable of course. President Reagan is right not to rush off to foreign lands before he has his house in order. But the importance of world leaders getting together periodically and talking out their differences cannot be overstated. The President and Mr. Brezhnev will have to sit down together eventually. Their countries are still responsible for world stability and peace, and so they have no choice but to keep talking. Communication does not mean warm embrace. It means communication -- understanding one another's positions, aims, and concerns , making sure there is no misunderstanding of them, and searching for ways to reduce tension. This is all the more crucial in a fast-moving, nuclearized, turbulent world in which one misstep could lead to human disaster.
In this connection, Washington's rather strident anti-Soviet posture these days is worrisome. It may be good politics for the President and his aides to talk tough, laying the blame for the world's ills at the Russians' doorstep. This may keep the conservative right wing happy while Mr. Reagan is preoccupied with the economy. But such rhetoric is not necessarily good diplomacy.
No American can quarrel with the goal of bracing US defenses, or with nudging the NATO nations to do more militarily. No American (or European, or African, or Asian) should be blind to the imperialistic nature of Soviet foreign policy. Mr. Reagan must be sure, however, that he is not misreading the true state of affairs by an alarmist, black-and-white view of the USSR, by putting every foreign problem in the context of an East-West confrontation. To be realistic and effective, America's policy must be grounded in an accurate and balanced understanding of the communist adversary.
Much is being said about Kremlin aims abroad. Secretary of State Haig is quoted by aides as believing that Soiet expansionism is the overriding problem around the world. According to one account, he feels that even the Arab-Israeli conflict is an issue of secondary importance when measured against the "strategic reality." Of secondary importance? Such thinking stands reason on its head. Soviet expansionism is indeed a dangerous 20th-century phenomenon which the non- communist world must be alert to and squarely confront. But let us not give it undue credit for success. It is self-deluding to think that communism always creates the problems -- rather than feeding on them. As a matter of fact, failure to resolve the Palestinian question is in part what invites Soviet involvement in the Mideast just as past US failure to respond to Salvadorans' aspirations for social and economic betterment have turned them to Soviet and Cuban arms.
Malcolm Toon, a former US envoy in Moscow who is no slouch when it comes to standing up to the Russians, warned in this newspaper not long ago against blaming "Soviet imperialistic malevolence" for all the turmoil in the world. "It is much too simplistic," he wrote, "to attribute to Moscow and Havana blame for the rise in anti-American feeling in Latin America, and it is wrong to hint that without Marxist influence there would have been a smooth and tranquil evolution of political change in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador." Mr. Toon counsels the new administration to have no illusions about the Russians -- but at the same time to avoid threats and bellicose statements.
This professional advice bears heeding as Mr. Reagan learns to deal with his Soviet antagonist. He might reflect that a saber-rattling US stance simply gives Mr. Brezhnev a gratuitous opportunity to sound the global peacemaker. And that -- as the world well k nows -- is not his starring role.