A bid to Brezhnev
Everyone should be encouraged by the Reagan administration's heightened attention to nuclear arms control. Not only has President Reagan raised the prospect of resuming superpower talks on strategic weapons. He now urges Leonid Brezhnev to meet him during the United Nations disarmament conference in June to discuss the arms question. It is far from certain that the recently hospitalized Soviet leader can accept such an invitation. But there is no question such a summit meeting would help to clear the air of hostility and perhaps give arms negotiations a much-needed nudge. It is sincerely to be hoped that Mr. Brezhnev will feel able to respond positively.
Summit meetings are not panaceas, of course. They can break up without result. They can also feed a false euphoria which, in turn, leads to disappointments. But in this day and age of nuclear perils it would seem only sensible that the superpower leaders meet occasionally in order to know each other and be conversant with each other's positions. This should not require a full-blown summit conference, which admittedly has to be well prepared. But the United Nations provides a natural and convenient forum for bringing leaders together on a less structured, less formal basis.
Doubtless the public movement in Europe and the United States for a freeze in nuclear weapons accounts for the signs of flexibility appearing in administration diplomacy. The polls show the vast majority of Americans strongly favoring arms control measures and a restraint on military spending. In domestic political terms alone, President Reagan must therefore be responsive to public opinion or risk consequences at the ballot box. It is apparent that he initially underestimated the concern which his toughly anti-Soviet posture and his call for a massive arms buildup would generate among the people at large and in the Congress. Americans want a strong defense but many suspect a certain exaggeration in the administration's estimates of the Soviet threat and in its defense program.
Certainly the administration can help allay concern by presenting as balanced a picture of the Soviet threat as possible. Mr. Reagan, even while issuing his call to Mr. Brezhnev, reaffirmed his belief that the Soviet Union has a ''definite margin of superiority'' in nuclear arms. But many military experts dispute this view. Similarly, it is puzzling why the President would say again that the Russians have 300 intermediate missiles with 900 warheads aimed at Europe. In fact, 100 of these SS-20s are targeted on China. In the spirit of his comment that the ''American people ought to be able to know everything they (the Russians) know,'' inaccuracies and generalizations ought to be guarded against. Underestimating as well as overestimating America's strengths has its risks.
One does detect, however, a gradual change in the administration's overall posture, a greater sense of realism than was conveyed by Mr. Reagan before and upon assuming the presidency. The fact that Secretary of State Haig is vigorously engaging the Chinese in talks about the sensitive issue of American sales to Taiwan is another welcome sign of flexibility. In the case of the Russians and arms, there perhaps is a growing awareness that the Soviet Union, however reprehensible its policies, cannot be blamed for every trouble in the world. If the Reagan administration needs proof of this, Argentina's highhanded grab of the Falkland Islands and the diplomatic and military crisis this has provoked should be enough.
A presidential dialogue with the Russians is appropriate at any time, but especially now when the world feels increasingly on the edge of a nuclear abyss.One summit meeting may not solve all the problems besetting East-West relations. But it could help.