Why East-West ties are stalled one year after the downing of Flight 7

East-West relations this weekend are just about where they were on Sept. 1 a year ago when a Soviet fighter plane shot down a South Korean airliner with 61 Americans aboard among a total of 269 passengers and crew.

The air disaster shocked the Western world and probably helped to clear the way for the deployment of American intermediate-range missiles in West Germany, Italy, and Great Britain. But it seems to have had little lasting effect either plus or minus on stalemated East-West relationships.

The year since has been marked by a great deal of backing and filling over arms control negotiations. Moscow and Washington each put forth new proposals which were treated by the other as propaganda maneuvers. Once the deployment of the new American Pershing II and cruise missiles began, Moscow walked out of both strategic and intermediate-range arms control talks.

In the immediate aftermath of the downing of the passenger airliner, Korean Air Lines Flight 7, the NATO allies drew together and gave fresh thought to their armed forces. But the propaganda advantage this gave the US was largely balanced off by the US invasion of Grenada two months later (Oct. 21), which was unpopular in Europe. The invasion was publicly condemned in Parliament by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Also unpopular in Europe was the later disclosure that the American CIA was responsible for floating mines off Nicaraguan seaports.

The yearning in Europe for a revival of detente between the two superpowers was strong before the Korean airliner was shot down, and remains strong today. One manifestation is the groping of the two Germanies for closer and easier relations. The trend has been criticized in Moscow, and also by right-wing elements in West Germany. But at this writing it is still expected that East German leader Erich Honecker will be visiting Bonn at the end of September.

The Soviet foreign and propaganda departments were obviously embarrassed by the shooting. They tried to neutralize the unfavorable reaction abroad by alleging that the aircraft had been part of a comprehensive American intelligence-gathering operation. As of last week, they were still trying to peddle that version for public consumption although having long since recognized in private diplomatic exchanges that it was one of those things likely to happen whenever a foreign aircraft of any kind strays deep inside Soviet airspace.

The immediate Washington reaction was strong in rhetoric but mild in substance. President Reagan called it a ''massacre,'' but his action was to continue a ban on Soviet airline landings in the US and to cancel plans announced four days earlier to open talks about a US consulate in Kiev, and about cultural and scientific exchanges.

Talks have recently been resumed about the Kiev consulate and the cultural and scientific exchanges.

On June 17 of last year, 21/2 months before the shooting of the Korean aircraft, US Secretary of State George Shultz had defined Reagan administration policy toward the Soviet Union in words which he could use today. He said that:

''Our policy, unlike some versons of detente, assumes that the Soviet Union is more likely to be deterred by our actions that make clear the risks their aggression entails than by a delicate web of interdependence.''

Mr. Reagan has spent his time in the White House focusing on building US military power. The idea of also building a ''web of interdependence'' as an alternative or complement has never had standing in Reagan circles. It was first promoted by Winston Churchill in 1954, and marketed with his slogan that ''Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.'' (In Mr. Churchill's speech the words jaw and war rhymed.) British foreign policy has ever since regarded a policy of seeking a ''web of interdependence'' as being at least a worthwhile supplement to the policy of building military strength.

Detente, as preached and practiced during the Nixon-Kissinger years, was in the stream of thought launched by Churchill in 1954. It is still popular among the NATO allies in Western Europe; but Reagan policy continues, to quote further from Mr. Shultz, to be based ''on the expectation that, faced with the demonstration of the West's renewed determination to strengthen its defenses, enhance its political and economic cohesion and oppose adventurism, the Soviet Union will see restraint as its most attractive or only option.''

If the Korean airline disaster had any effect on basic policy anywhere, it was to reconfirm in Reagan minds reliance on the Shultz formula. The fact that the arms control talks have been broken off means at the White House that the buildup in Western strength has not gone far enough yet. There is confidence that sooner or later, when enough new American weapons are on line, Moscow will be ready to negotiate on important matters.

Meanwhile, East-West relations continue to mark time.

There is little point for either Moscow or Washington to start anything new in the way of a dialogue until we know whether Mr. Reagan is going to be in the White House for another four years, and, also, whether Mr. Chernenko is still running things in Moscow. He has not been seen in public since mid-July.

In effect, there continues to be an interregnum in both Moscow and Washington. No important policy changes seem likely until the succession issue is settled in both places.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.