The speech Secretary of State Haig delivered Aug. 11 to the American Bar Association marks the official reopening of a diplomatic dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union. It had been suspended when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan a year and a half ago.
According to the speech, President Reagan has written to Soviet President Brezhnev asserting that the US Wants "a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship with the Soviet Union."
According to Haig's speech, this statement of presidential preference has been backed up "by over 50 direct contacts at senior diplomatic levels."
Mr. Haig did not say that it has also been backed up by the lifting of the embargo on grain shipments to the Soviet Union. It was tactful to leave this out of the speech since the lifting was done openly and avowedly to fulfill a political promise to American farmers, not as a favor to Moscow.
It was tactful to leave out mention of the grain embargo for another reason. The speech reasserted a favorite Reagan administration theme that in dealing with the Soviet Union everything is related or "linked" and that nothing should ever be given the Soviets without getting something in return. But here we had an example of tossing away a bargaining counter without attempting to use it in "linkage" for something Washington wants.
However, that is incidental to the main purpose of the speech. That was to declare the resumption of the dialogue and to outline broadly what the Reagan administration regards as subjects for discussion.
When stripped of political rhetoric (which was ample) the agenda laid out in the speech comes in two parts; what Washington wants from Moscow and what it offers in return.
The Reagan administration wants withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, withdrawal of Soviet support for the occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, and an end to Soviet support for insurgencies in Central America.
In return Mr. Haig holds forth the prospect of a reduction in "tensions," "fair and balanced agreements on arms control," and "the possibility of Western trade and technology."
Understandably, the speech is heavier and more specific on what Washington wants than on what Washington offers in return. In looking over the outline a Soviet analyst will conclude that there is as yet no prospect for any big deal.
However, a diplomatic dialogue traditionally opens with a statement of maximum demands coupled with minimum concessions. No trained diplomat would dream of looking approvingly at the opening proposals by the opposite side. It is to be presumed that in this case Moscow will in due time submit a counter set of proposals which will be equally unacceptable to anyone in Washington.
The important thing about the speech, therefore, is not that the Soviets will reject these terms, but that an opening set of proposals has been made.
Early results are not to be expected. There probably will be an answering set of Soviet proposals. In the meantime some diplomats will work along the line of discussion which has been opened up and which just might someday produce results.
Last June the foreign ministers of the West European Economic Community (the Common Market) published a set of proposals for conferences about Afghanistan. It was an effort to draft a device which would allow the Soviets to back out of their military venture without loss of face. The plan's merits were explained to the Soviets by British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington when in Moscow in early July.
The Soviets have, as expected, rejected the Western plan in its original form and come back with counterproposals which the West finds equally unacceptable. In other words, Moscow is not yet being hurt sufficiently in Afghanistan to accept a way out which would leave them in less than control through a puppet government of their choosing.
But military reports indicate that Soviet forces are being hurt, and are less than successful. It has become and expensive operation. Someday, just as the Americans eventually wanted out from Vietnam, the Soviets will want out from Afghanistan. The diplomats will keep working at finding a formula to help them out. And the American diplomats now have clearance from Washington to get on with that work.