Indira Gandhi's buoyant visit to the United States does more than restore a neglected warmth to Indian-US relations.It offers a useful education for the Reagan administration in the attitudes of the third world and in how to view Soviet foreign policy. If a dispassionate analysis were to be made now of Moscow's standing in the world, it could be seen that Soviet military power is not matched by political influence. The Russians are not exactly in retreat, but they have suffered diplomatic casualties.
In the case of India, it was wrongly presumed by some in Washington that the Soviet Union had neatly enfolded Mrs. Gandhi in the Soviet embrace. Didn't the two countries have a friendship treaty, after all? Indeed the Indian leader had nurtured a cozy bond with Moscow. Yet we now see a shift back toward a more evenhanded stance and a conscious effort to draw closer to the West. There are many reasons for this - not least of all a genuine desire to preserve India's autonomy - but the point is that the situation in India was always more complex than the simple appearances would have one believe.
Take the Middle East. Nowhere has the Soviet Union invested more arms and diplomatic effort to extend its influence. Yet it is powerless to sway events there. Its reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon has been extremely cautious, the arms it supplied to Syria and the PLO have proved no equal for the US-supplied Israeli weapons, and even its own Arab clients look not to Moscow but to Washington for diplomatic solutions. That much talked about Soviet grab for the Persian Gulf has simply not materialized.
Elsewhere, too, the Soviets have problems. They may have demanded - and gotten - a crackdown in Poland, but it is clear that the political and economic costs of maintaining their vast East European domain are growing. Cuba is an increasingly heavy burden. Afghanistan is a quagmire. China looms as a formidable rival.
What does this suggest for US diplomacy? Certainly not a slackening of the guard. It would be imprudent, yea, dangerous, to overestimate Moscow's difficulties abroad (and at home) and underestimate its worldwide ambitions. But , as the Gandhi visit illustrates, it is too facile to divide the world into two camps - East and West - and measure every country and leader in terms of loyalty to one or the other. Much of the world wishes to be nonaligned and, as Prime Minister Gandhi affirmed, to have good relations with all. That is an independence of action the West should understand.
This does not mean an abdication of ties with the West or of Western ideals. Left to themselves, most countries that have chosen close friendship with the Soviet Union have learned the price of its heavy (and ineffective) tutelage and returned to pro-Western directions. American interests are therefore best served not by waging a crusading war against the Soviet Union but by patiently letting the communist system discredit itself in the eyes of those who are attracted to it. The urge for freedom and identity drives nations as well as individuals and is the best guarantee that the future does not lie with Soviet-style communism.
President Reagan's warm reception of Mrs. Gandhi shows that he sees the opportunities which a strengthened US tie with a nonaligned India afford. Not only does it bolster India's commitment to democracy. It will enable India to play its rightful role in fostering stability in the region - perhaps even persuading its Soviet friends to remove themselves from Afghanistan.
This is intelligent diplomacy which the US could use more of.