Does the change in Soviet leadership offer a chance for improving relations with the USSR? Yuri Andropov promises to be a much more vigorous leader than Brezhnev was in his last years. But what will be his aims and priorities in foreign affairs? It is, of course, too soon to know.
Andropov has good reasons for giving priority to domestic concerns. The economy is inefficient and stagnant as a result of serious structural weaknesses: Industry, labor agriculture, energy all pose major problems. Making the economy more dynamic will require basic revisions in the way it is managed and in encouraging innovation. Slow growth will force shifts in allocating resources among investment, consumers, and defense. Such changes will be resisted by entrenched interests and will be politically unsettling.
In his first major speech, Andropov focused on domestic affairs as having ''highest priority.'' He could well decide to seek better relations with China and the West in order to concentrate on carrying out economic reform at home. But he may not. Instead he could mount a peace offensive aimed especially at Western Europe while making no changes in foreign policy.
The course chosen may be influenced by the alternatives offered by the Reagan administration. It is hardly well poised to explore the possibilities. Its policy toward the Soviet Union lacks coherence - as Carter's did for other reasons.
Reagan's view of the Soviet Union is not in doubt: He sees it as hostile and menacing. But a policy must define how to cope with Soviet conduct. It must pull together the defense program, allied relations, negotiations with the USSR, China, and shoring up critical areas like the Middle East into a consistent whole.
That the Reagan administration has not yet done, despite some progress on specific issues especially since Secretary Shultz took over.
The President has said he would welcome better relations with the new Soviet regime. But the administration needs to clarify what kind of relations it seeks with the USSR. It is not enough to tell Andropov that the US expects deeds not words. What kind of regime would the US accept in Afghanistan if the Soviets withdrew their forces? What reforms in Poland would enlist US help in bailing out its economy? What does the US visualize as an acceptable military balance? What kinds of arms control agreements does the administration really want and with what sort of verification?
The defense program needs to be justified by a clearer military strategy which engages the support of Congress and the public. The statements and leaks about nuclear strategy have generated more concern than confidence, and some of the new weapons systems seem redundant. Qualified economists doubt the defense industry can increase output by 15 to 20 percent a year, as now planned. As a result, Congress may well cut back or reject parts of the program. And that might lead the Soviets to draw the mistaken conclusion that the US will not spend what is required for its security.
Relations with allies, especially regarding policy toward the Soviet Union, are in poor shape. Secretary of State Shultz has resolved the pipeline issue (though the White House botched his handiwork). But the cleavages are more basic and call for systematic efforts to reach some accord or working compromise, building on what Shultz has already started. Otherwise issues like theater nuclear weapons and East-West trade will seriously strain the Alliance.
In the Middle East, which is the Achilles heel of the West, the Reagan initiatives on the Palestinian issue are constructive and courageous. But if Prime Minister Begin is allowed to continue the Israeli settlements and de facto annexation of the occupied territories, the initiative will disappear into the sands and Arab confidence in the US will drop to zero. What pressure is Reagan prepared to apply to bring about negotiations on his proposals?
The initial tension with China over Taiwan has been smoothed over, but the handling of the relation hardly took adequate account of its wider implications. Yet the US should not become unduly concerned if China and the USSR agree on reducing the tensions between them. That need not impair US interests, especially if China continues to press the Soviet Union on Afghanistan and Poland.
An outsider cannot know how US policies may affect Soviet decisions either for genuine coexistence or for a more assertive or venturesome course. But it would be foolish not to clarify the options in the hope that they might influence Soviet choices. And if Andropov does wish to explore improving relations, it is essential to have our own house in order and to know what we realistically want. Moreover, even if the new Soviet regime should not do so, clear and consistent policies will be at least as vital to maintain the cohesion of the West in the face of a divisive peace offensive.