World's second 'cold war' eases Geneva talks are one sign of a groping toward renewed detente
The year 1984 marked the climax of the second ''cold war.'' As it opened, both President Reagan in Washington and President Andropov in Moscow made speeches that amounted to saying: ''This is getting too dangerous, perhaps we had better tone down our words and start talking.''
It had been getting dangerous. Useful conversation between Moscow and Washington had been broken off. All serious arms control negotiations were at a dead end. Arms factories in both superpowers were working at top speed. Experts on nuclear weaponry calculated that each possessed five times the number of nuclear weapons probably capable, if used, of ending all life, vegetable as well as animal, on the planet Earth.
As the year opened, the superpowers' friends and allies were working on the two major capitals to get back to talking. The East and West Germans clung to each other, or rather to such associations as they had with each other. The Western capitals were urging restraint on Washington. The East European satellites were doing the same in Moscow.
President Reagan, with an election year opening up in front of him and a population getting nervous about war talk, made the first call to parley. It came from the White House on Jan. 16. Soviet President Yuri Andropov responded three days later.
Both interventions were notable for their ''moderate'' wordings and tone. Both proposed resumption of arms control talks. Both asserted a desire for improved United States-Soviet relations. And for the next 10 months Soviet and US governments groped toward a beginning of an effort to convert the pious aspirations of January into something tangible.
During the intervening months both have refrained from such actions as would put a sudden end to the gropings. The Soviets shot down no more foreign airliners. The Americans refrained from more Grenadas. Both kept themselves in the background rather than on the front lines in the Middle East.
The Soviets continued their campaign of attrition in Afghanistan. The US continued to encourage the rebel contras in Nicaragua. But neither initiated any new venture in empire building.
In other words, during 1984 the second cold war was put on ice. (Its origins go as far back as the Soviet intervention in Angola and Mozambique in 1974 but it began decisively with Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.) The activities of the ''cold war'' years continued. Neither superpower ceased or desisted from such ventures as were under way at the beginning of the year. The Soviets continued their military operations in Afghanistan and the US in Central America. But both operated as though under an unstated rule of not starting anything new.
It took from January, when the parley flag was raised, to Nov. 22 to be able to agree on a time and place for the formal beginning of a new dialogue between the two superpowers. The place is to be Geneva. The dates are Jan. 7 and 8. The principal negotiators are to be George Shultz for the US and Andrei Gromyko for the Soviet Union.
The two foreign secretaries have met and talked several times during the intervening months. But those were interim and informal conversations. The formalized and serious talking will begin 10 days short of a full year since President Reagan first waved his truce flag toward Moscow from the ramparts of Washington.
The mere fact that it took 10 months from the raising of the American parley flag to agreement on a time and place for formal negotiations indicates both how frozen are the postures and habits of the second ''cold war'' and how difficult will be the process of finding points of agreement when the talks begin in Geneva.
And even then, the talks are scheduled for only two days. All that can actually be done in two days is to try to set up agendas and locales for further explorations.
The second ''cold war'' has itself been frozen. This new condition amounts to a truce. It may or may not be converted into something more stable. But it has given the world a respite. At least the two superpowers have asserted a mutual desire to reduce tensions and work toward a less dangerous condition.
The world has not stood still during this groping toward armistice by the superpowers. The contrast between economic stagnation in the Soviet Union and renewed economic vitality in the US has influenced other countries everywhere. It is one reason why China has not only increased its associations with the Western world but also taken the year's most dramatic step by repudiating the doctrine of Marxism as the solvent of all problems.
Countries of the third world have reversed a gravitational inclination toward Moscow and communism. The general inclination of most such countries now is back toward association with the West. Moscow gained no new recruits in 1984.
Allied countries have shown a more friendly aspect toward Washington. There has been a decided decline during the year of criticism of US policies. During the year troubles among the allies were muted. The European allies have improved their efforts at building conventional military strength.
At year's end, the fate of Afghanistan is still being hammered out on a hundred local fields of battle. It is uncertain whether Congress will allow President Reagan to resume aid to the ''contras'' in Nicaragua. The war between Iran and Iraq is deadlocked. The conflict between Israel and its non-Egyptian neighbors is in a condition of undeclared armistice.
The first ''cold war'' lasted from 1947 to President Nixon's trips to Peking and Moscow in 1972. The first ''detente'' survived for seven years - from 1972 to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The end of 1984 finds the superpowers groping with hesitation, doubt, and difficulty toward the possibility of a second try at detente. They are still a long way from knowing whether it is possible, or what it might be like. All they really do know is that they have looked into the nuclear abyss - and pulled back from the brink for another try at coexistence.