US-Soviet talks without raised voices

The United States and Soviet Union continue to disagree on just about every issue imaginable. But after two sets of top-level talks here, the tone of superpower dialogue seems to have become more businesslike, and less confrontational.

Whether this will help to defuse any future crisis remains to be seen. For those who yearn for US-Soviet detente, the best that can be said is that the deterioration in superpower relations - caused in part by disagreements over Poland, Afghanistan, and Central America - may now have been halted. Both sides seem to have gone into a holding pattern, with neither eager to provoke a confrontation.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz met Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko here on two occasions. The Sept. 28 and Oct. 4 meetings ran a total of seven and a half hours.

As a senior US official pointed out in a briefing for reporters afterward, the talks gave Mr. Shultz his first chance to size up his Soviet counterpart and to listen to high-level Soviet views. Shultz is the tenth secretary of state with whom the veteran Soviet diplomat has met over the years.

In his briefing, the senior US official described the tone of the Shultz-Gromyko meetings as ''nonpolemical, serious, and businesslike - with no raised voices.''

This businesslike tone may to a degree reflect the subdued style of Secretary of State Shultz. Minutes after emerging from a New York meeting with Mr. Gromyko earlier this year, Shultz' predecessor, Alexander M. Haig Jr., had publicly denounced the Soviets in June for launching a series of nuclear missile tests. Secretary of State Shultz sharply criticized the Soviets in an address at the United Nations last week, but the overall tone of his speech was calm and cautious.

Both the Soviets and the Americans are engaged in a battle for West European sympathy at the moment, and neither wants to be seen by the Europeans as pursuing a policy of confrontation. According to recent visitors to Moscow, the Soviets sense that the rift in the Atlantic alliance over Reagan administration pipeline sanctions offers the Kremlin an unforeseen and major opportunity to exploit.

Many Europeans suspect that the Reagan administration has a ''hidden agenda'' amounting to ''economic warfare'' against the Soviet Union.

But Secretary of State Shultz did go into his second meeting with Mr. Gromyko with a slightly more united allied position behind him.

In Canada this past weekend, foreign ministers from the NATO countries agreed to try to reach a new consensus on East-West trade. At the urging of Mr. Shultz, the allies are examining the possibility of further restricting trade with the Soviet Union that might contribute to Moscow's military might.

''I think we're past the stage of rhetorical disagreement and on to the search for mutual options,'' said one Reagan administration official. In Canada, the foreign ministers agreed in principle to launch new studies on the sale of technology and the provision of credits to the Soviet Union. It was not clear how or where such studies would be conducted.

But European fears about an ''adventurous'' Reagan administration could lead to increasing European opposition to the allied decision to deploy new American cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe, starting in December 1983.

Aside from their overriding concern about this key allied decision, the Soviets have had other reasons for appearing less than confrontational in their relations with the West.

To start with, they are in the midst of sorting out a succession to the leadership of Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. In the Middle East, their Arab allies have proven, not surprisingly, unable to match Israel's military might.

But one expert on the Soviets, Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., warns that it would be a mistake to view the Soviets as totally passive in foreign affairs.

Mr. Sonnenfeldt (who once worked as right-hand man to Henry Kissinger at the State Department) pointed out that in the Middle East, for example, the Soviets still have a base in South Yemen; are replacing Syria's recent losses of military equimpent; and are attempting to improve relations with Iran. He noted that in the midst of a leadership transition, the Soviets are also ''conducting a fairly significant diplomatic initiative,'' aimed at improving relations with China.

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