Strange courtship

Restoration of civil superpower discourse should be a first goal of whoever heads the US government next January. And preparation for that should begin now, in the election campaign.

At the moment, the world is being treated to a strange courtship between the two superpowers. The Soviet Union doesn't seem to want to take Washington's ''yes'' for an answer to the Kremlin's bid for antisatellite weapons talks in Vienna; the United States doesn't want to accept the Kremlin's ''no'' to the inclusion of the adjourned Geneva agendas on intermediate and long-range missiles in the proposed Vienna parley.

The atmosphere surrounding the suitors hardly helps. Soviet citizens have been given a distorted picture of the American scene, playing up violence and dissent, portraying the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the hero of the Democratic National Convention and the Los Angeles Olympics as a repressive police binge. In turn, the absence of the major Soviet-bloc teams itself says something about Washington's breaking off of civil political dialogue in recent years, beginning with Jimmy Carter and carrying through most of the Reagan administration's tenure.

Although the suitors appear anxious and fumbling, at least something is drawing them together. In Moscow, the Kremlin is wary. Detente is not very popular right now. Detente was keyed to the curve of Leonid Brezhnev's career, declining with his later years. There's a lot of sarcasm about that era now in Moscow. The Chernenko succession leaves great uncertainty. The proposal for the Vienna talks - which apparently came from the Academy of Sciences and from Soviet officials who fear the US may leap ahead in space technology in a manner that could demand some drastic Soviet counterstep - finds hard soil in Moscow for taking root. In Washington, the Reagan administration endures its own US backbiting.

Space weapon talks could revive the two other negotiations, on intermediate and strategic weapons - although not likely in Vienna, but back in Geneva. Last November it appeared that both sides were serious about an agreement. They had reached at least a starting point for both the intermediate- and strategic-arms negotiations. The intermediate talks broke off after the walk-in-the-woods proposal that included a position on the French and British missiles, which the Soviets had wanted to include. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko's mention of the French and British missiles to George McGovern could have been a reminder of where the talks had left off. The same is true with the strategic talks, which left off on a build-down proposal.

Not all has been handled well on either side. The Kremlin's foreign policy appears to be superintended by Mr. Gromyko rather than by a head of state and party at the zenith of his powers, as was Mr. Brezhnev in the heyday of detente.

In Washington, it is observed, three of the top four State Department people are economists, not diplomats. Their expertise is in the crucial area of world economic interrelations, not political-military strategy.

The United States needs to develop a policy which takes into account that in the political-military realm, the Soviet Union is America's equal. The Soviets are a power that cannot be dismissed for its flaws of ideology and character. Too often, members of the Reagan administration have viewed the Soviets as despicable, as unworthy of welcome at the negotiating table.

A mature foreign policy should show itself in stable relations. It has been too easy on both sides to reach for the negative. Both sides have seemed intent on finding the blind side of the opponent for attack. Now, late in the US political cycle and early in the Soviet succession, they are trying to make the best of it.

It would have been better had the Soviet bloc considered the Los Angeles Olympics a good time to chat with the American President, if not alone, then with US political leaders, without the necessity of an arms agenda.

How much the disparaging atmosphere in both capitals might have had to do with the breakoff in arms talks last fall, and how much was the result of brinkmanship and the Kremlin's own need to get its house in order, is unclear. In some ways, the atmospherics may be worse than the realities behind the scene, where the groundwork for contacts is carried out.

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