Detente revisited

The condition usually called ''detente'' is 10 years old this month. It began in Moscow in May of 1972 when Richard Nixon made the first visit by an American president to the Soviet Union. He arrived on May 22. On May 26 he signed with Leonid Brezhnev what became known as SALT I.

But there was much more to that visit than just signing the beginning of the effort to control the race between the superpowers in nuclear weapons. Between May 23, the day after the arrival, and May 29, the final day of formalities, Mr. Nixon and other members of his entourage signed a whole bundle of other agreements, understandings, and expressions of hope for further improvement in US-USSR relations.

It is difficult in these times of what some call ''the second cold war'' to recall the euphoria about detente of those days in May, 10 years ago.

True, the visit did not make everyone happy. America's European allies were anxious and uneasy about too much talk of a new era dawning between the two superpowers. Learned treatises were written, and some less learned ones as well, about possibilities of a sort of US-Soviet condominium over the world. Some Soviet clients and dependents were as anxious as were America's allies at the prospect of an active Washington-Moscow relationship. Many saw a superpower management of the world.

But mostly there was euphoria with various aspects. American corporations dreamed of moving into the Soviet empire, plans were made for opening up Moscow offices. American businessmen dreamed of vast new markets, and perhaps some cheap labor as well.

The visit aroused extravagant hopes, and also some fears which proved unfounded. It was not as easy for Soviets and Americans to cooperate together as seemed possible in those days of spring -- only 10 years ago.

Two things are particularly worth noting about the story of detente. The first is that Mr. Nixon went to Moscow and entered into a closer association with the Soviets only after having first gone to Peking and reopened US relations with mainland China. In other words, he built strength before venturing to conclude agreements with Moscow. He had gone to Peking -- to the astonishment of most of the world -- only three months earlier. His arrival in Peking on Feb. 21 had been the top spectacular event of the beginning of the year. It gave him enormous new bargaining power with the Soviets.

The Soviets in 1972 were anxious to deal with Mr. Nixon if only to be in a position to try to head off the danger (to them) of a real partnership between China and the US. That possibility must have been a nightmare to them, and probably still is to this day. Mr. Nixon was playing for high stakes indeed when he went to Peking. The follow-up in Moscow was classic diplomacy. A Bismarck or Talleyrand would have applauded.

The second thing to note is that detente failed to reach its potential in truly improved confidence between the superpowers partly because Moscow found itself unable to refrain from doing things which seemed in American eyes to violate the principles of ''detente.'' These included putting Cuban troops into Angola and Ethiopia. Detente never really recovered from the shock of that action. Of course Moscow compounded the error (in Western eyes) of that intrusion into central Africa by the invasion of Afghanistan. The later imposition of martial law in Poland only added ammunition to those who for various reasons opposed or feared detente.

But now, is detente such a dead letter after all?

This is an interesting moment in Soviet-American relations. Caspar Weinberger , who is both secretary of defense in the Reagan cabinet and prime spokesman in the administration for the neo-conservative ''hawks,'' declares that ''the Soviet Union poses a greater danger to the American people than any other foreign power in our history.''

But Secretary of State Haig over at the State Department has persuaded President Reagan to reopen negotiations with Moscow over strategic weapons. And Mr. Reagan is now saying that he hopes to meet with Leonid Brezhnev either at the United Nations in June, or at almost any time and any place suitable to the leader of the world's other superpower.

Obviously, detente which started out with extravagant expectations has declined steadily over the past 10 years. It was at its bottom when Mr. Reagan took office. But is it about to experience a revival? [To be continued.]

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