George Shultz believes that ''a new age of democratic reform and revolution'' lies ahead in communist countries in light of recent events there. The US secretary of state made this encouraging assessment at a State Department conference on finding ways to spread democracy to East European and other communist lands. It is an intriguing analysis, coming at a time when the world seems weighed down with insoluble problems. What a boon for mankind if real political change could take place in an area comprising one third of the globe's surface.
The question is what the United States should do to help foster such change. Mr. Shultz, echoing the President's own desire to aid the struggle for freedom there, said it was America's moral and strategic responsibility to meet the calls for help from those seeking peaceful change. But he wisely cautioned that the US does not seek to foment revolution or undermine Marxist regimes. In his words, ''internal forces must be the major factors for democratization of communist states.'' Indeed history has taught that change - in the case of nations no less than individuals - must come from within, and is permanent only when it does.
This should hold a lesson in dealing with the Soviet Union, the largest and most threatening of the communist systems. Nothing the United States or the West does or says will appreciably alter the internal dynamics of Soviet society. But one can still ask what kind of Western policy gives the forces of freedom and liberalization in the USSR the better chance of success. A policy of confrontation? Or a policy of realistic detente - a policy which says the US will deter the Soviet Union where necessary but cooperate with it where it is in the mutual advantage?
Paradoxically, Mr. Shultz talks of spreading the ideas of democracy even as Soviet-American relations are in a deep freeze. Many US government-sponsored cultural exchanges have been suspended. Nuclear arms talks do not appear to be going anywhere. Even the administration's willingness to sell US grain to Moscow cannot conceal the general distaste for a vigorous East-West trade. Not much opening for ideas here.
Paradoxically, too, today's more confrontational US posture comes at a time when the Soviet Union is acknowledged to be experiencing weaknesses at home and abroad. Its economy is in terrible shape. It faces a national insurrection in Poland. It is bogged down in Afghanistan. It has lost influence in the Middle East, and its gains in Angola and Ethiopia are dubious ones.
Does a policy of hostility make sense?
Of course it would be foolish to return to a euphoric interpretation of detente as a formula for peace and friendship. But surely the gains on the side of freedom won in the years of East-West detente should not be lightly dismissed. Detente did promote some democratic values. Think of the millions of East Germans and others who won the right to travel. Think of the economic changes in Hungary. Think of the liberalized climate in Poland in which a free trade union burgeoned - and almost succeeded. Think of those liberal, Western-minded (but loyal) members of the Soviet intelligentsia who are pressing for internal reforms but see these efforts endangered if East-West relations deteriorate and the Kremlin adopts a siege mentality.
Yes, reform will come to the Soviet Union and in its East European domain but it is more likely to come when the leadership does not feel threatened by outside pressures. Surely it is appropriate for the US administration to be talking of fostering peaceful change of communist systems. But is a renewed ''cold war'' the way to go about it?