The US public is reasonably content with Reagan's Soviet policy
The last hope of Walter Mondale's advisers seems to be that the Democratic candidate will succeed in exposing Ronald Reagan's lack of arms control accomplishments. But the hope is misplaced. That is not because Mr. Reagan is a Teflon President and nothing sticks to him. It is because the impact of the flak is directly proportional to the degree of voter concern.
In fact, the majority of Americans are reasonably comfortable with Reagan's Soviet policy. This is not to suggest that there is wild enthusiasm over his performance in relations with Moscow, but opinion polls and personal conversations with politically aware citizens in various regions of the nation suggest that from the public's point of view, the President's Soviet record is at least in a tolerable range.
True, most support the concept of nuclear freeze. And according to an authoritative study by the Public Agenda Foundation, 76 percent believe that the United States shares the blame for the Soviet-US tension. Moreover, over 52 percent agree that the US ''has not done enough to reach serious arms reductions with the Soviets.''
Sounds like good news for Mr. Mondale? Not necessarily. The simple fact of life is that for the majority, the danger associated with the absence of arms control - not unlike the case of the budget deficit - is an abstraction. It vaguely worries people, but not enough to shake their preference for Mr. Reagan. What Americans are genuinely afraid of is a nuclear war and a lasting conventional engagement of US forces. And here the President is on relatively safe ground.
On the level of rhetoric, Mr. Reagan is the first to declare these days that nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought. This has not always been his message, but the public's memory of verbal overkill is short. And during Mr. Reagan's almost four-year tenure there was no real crisis between the superpowers, despite a lot of mutual yelling. With the absence of a real and present nuclear threat, the fears of the American people do not reach the intensity required to outweigh the pocketbook considerations favoring the President.
Nor is Ronald Reagan perceived as being trigger happy concerning conventional wars. He had the political sense to cut and run from Beirut. In Grenada, the victory was fast and cheap, and he reassured Americans that no further military interventions were in the works. In Central America, the administration was indeed careful to avoid a combat role for US forces.
So it is not so much for the immediate danger of confrontation but rather for the lack of diplomatic accomplishment that the administration can be blamed in the relationship with the Soviets. But the public is ambiguous about diplomatic arrangements with them. The lack of these makes Americans nervous, but their presence also generates unease and frustration. The same Public Agenda Foundation study that demonstrates an American yearning for arms control shows that 56 percent do not see the difference between the Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany and 61 percent think the Soviets ''lie, cheat, and steal'' to further their cause, and respond only to military strength. And 74 percent agree that the US should refuse to enter arms control agreements without on-site inspection - something the Politburo adamantly rejects. And 67 percent are comfortable with the proposition that ''the Soviets used detente as an opportunity to build up their armed forces while lulling us into a false sense of security.''
The bottom line is that the public wants peace but not closeness with the Soviet Union. The art of statesmanship is to reassure the people simultaneously that there will be no confrontation and no political or moral surrender to ''the evil empire.'' Americans seem to feel that Mr. Reagan has managed to strike more or less the right balance between belligerence and appeasement. The President is popular not despite, but rather because of, to some extent, his handling of the Soviet Union.
Of course good politics is not always good policy. Also, there is only one stable and predictable dimension of public attitudes in the US - they are bound to evolve. Accordingly, it would be a mistake to assume that - if Mr. Reagan is reelected - the administration may safely continue its casual attitude to seeking a cordial working relationship with the Soviet adversary.
There is a risk that the US and the USSR will become involved, even against their best judgments, in an explosion somewhere in the third world. There is a risk that political succession in Moscow will produce tougher and more dynamic leaders, inclined to seek domestic legitimacy through standing up to ''the imperialist enemy.'' There is a risk of economic difficulties in America that would make the Congress increasingly reluctant to fund Mr. Reagan's defense effort. If that happened, the administration's negotiating leverage would be reduced. Finally, some of the more ambitious US strategic programs cannot be effective without some negotiated constraints on Soviet countermeasures.
In short, limited steps to regulate the superpower rivalry would be in the US interest. But it is an illusion that the administration is under strong public pressure to undertake them. In fact, a resumption of meaningful dialogue with the Soviet Union would undoubtedly activate influential and vocal forces in the US deeply troubled by any sign of accommodation. To overcome this opposition would require political finesse, courage, and a hard-line image. Ronald Reagan fits the bill. But even his confidants are unsure whether he will make negotiating with the Soviet Union a personal priority. Otherwise, good intentions in the Oval Office count for little.