An effective policy toward the Soviet Union demands coherence over time and unity among the allies. For nearly two decades after 1947, Western policy achieved both in large degree. From the start, it had two elements: deterrence of and dialogue with the Soviets. The decade of the 1950s, when NATO was rearming, saw Eisenhower's call for better relations after Stalin died, the 1954 Berlin meeting on Germany, the Geneva Summit of 1955, the Stassen arms control talks, Khrushchev's visit to the United States and the abortive Paris summit of 1960.
For the past decade, however, the West has had neither coherence nor unity in its Soviet policy. The illusions of the Nixon-Kissinger detente and the vacillations of the Carter period were ended only by the shock of Afghanistan. One consequence of this erratic US leadership was the allied disarray on Soviet policy. Until lately the Reagan administration seemed bent on perpetuating that unhappy tradition.
The President's recent speech on arms control justifies the hope for something better. His defense proposals have already shown his commitment to effective deterrence. His speech showed that he recognized, as early as his April letter to Brezhnev, the need for dialogue as well. And its content and timing showed his awareness of the necessity to unify the allied approach to the Soviet Union and arms control.
The negotiations on arms control thus have a dual function. One is to explore seriously and patiently whether the Soviets are really interested in arms reduction or constraint based on parity and adequate verification. Neither SALT I nor II really settled that issue. Whatever their merits, they largely ratified the parameters of the planned programs of both sides. In 1977 the Soviets rejected out of hand the Carter proposals for substantial cuts.
The second aim of the negotiations is to foster consensus at home and in the alliance regarding deterrence and Soviet relations. That will not be an easy task.
At home the divergencies of view are very wide. How wide is illustrated by the contrasting outlooks recently expressed by George Kennan and Averell Harriman. In 1946 when they served together in Moscow, both shared Kennan's analysis of Soviet motives and policies set out in his famous cable and his X article in Foreign Affairs, which underlay the policy of containment.
Today Kennan sees the Soviet leaders as too cautious, defensive, and inward-looking to pose much of a threat. The real danger is from the nuclear weapons race; our own weapons endanger us as much as do those of the Soviets. The only answer is total elimination. In contrast, Harriman, while recognizing that the Soviet Union has evolved since Stalin, finds more continuity in Soviet conduct and policy than Kennan seems to. He is strongly for arms cuts not based on trust but thinks that eliminating nuclear weapons entirely is unrealistic and too risky. And of course many others would oppose any other arms agreements at all.
In Europe, the situation is more complex than here. The ''antinuclear'' movement has mobilized many groups with varied outlooks. Some may be mollified by a genuine effort for arms control, and the attendant public debate may contribute to better understanding of the relation of military balance to deterrence and peace. But the Soviets will certainly continue to exploit the fears and hopes of these groups and unless countered by West European leaders and media may well succeed in beguiling European opinion and widening divergencies.
Clearly it will require a great deal of skill and patience by the US and cooperation with its allies to assure that the outcome of these negotiations is constructive - at the best in achieving balanced agreements if that is feasible, or at least in enhancing Western unity. Even so, that alone will not ensure a coherent Western policy toward the Soviet Union.
The Reagan administration has been right not to link its readiness to negotiate on arms control to Soviet behavior elsewhere. Arms control should be pursued as far as possible on its own merits. But that does not mean, of course, that the US can or should disregard Soviet actions in the third world which damage Western security interests. Yet as Afghanistan showed, Europeans, and especially the West Germans, are deeply committed to maintaining European detente, almost without regard to Soviet activities in the third world. That is likely to be a source of division and friction with the US.
Even so, if the President's initiative on arms control is only part of a complete policy toward the Soviet Union, it is still an important and encouraging step. It is a significant component of policy, and it lays a basis for coping more effectively with other aspects in cooperation with the allies. And this step is encouraging in confirming that the President is ready and able to listen and learn in developing his foreign policy.