THREE decades ago East met West for a new beginning, the first serious move toward d'etente after nearly a decade of cold war. In 1955, as now, a more energetic team had come to power in Moscow, one that sought to promote Soviet interests through new tactics which it termed ``peaceful coexistence.'' Then, as now, old grievances and new challenges weighed heavily on both East and West. Federal Germany was starting to rearm and the USSR organized the Warsaw Pact. Both the arms race and the third world fairly crackled with fresh instabilities. President Eisenhower agreed to meet with Stalin's successors on condition that they matched words of peace with gestures. The Khrushchev-Bulganin Kremlin responded by withdrawing Soviet forces from Austria and returning Porkkala naval base to Finland. Soviet diplomats -- in what British Nobel laureate Philip Noel-Baker called a ``moment of hope'' -- accepted certain Western principles as the guidelines for arms reductions. The face-to-face meeting at the Geneva summit convinced leaders on both sides that they shared a deep fear of nuclear war.
The 1955 spirit of Geneva fell apart as Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles succeeded in sharpening instead of tempering East-West differences. The State Department even placed a ``reservation'' on all its pre-summit positions. Washington never tested Moscow's offer to join both Germanys in a neutral and demilitarized Central Europe. Cold war as usual resumed as East European arms shipments unsettled the Middle East and Soviet tanks crushed Hungarian freedom fighters. Both sides cranked up the arms competition while Harvard Prof. Henry Kissinger found a place for tactical nuclears in NATO strategy.
D'etente is a fragile flower, easily crushed. The fresh start made in 1955 did not produce a follow-through to sustain its early momentum. The 1959 spirit of Camp David met a similar fate, foundering on next year's U-2 embarrassment, while the 1963 spirit of Moscow evaporated in Vietnam and Czechoslovakia. The d'etente of 1972-73 lasted longer than its predecessors, but collapsed in recriminations over emigration, trade, and Soviet actions in the third world.
East and West need to create a structure to contain competition and enhance common interests in peace, economic development, and environmental quality. The single most important deed the Mikhail S. Gorbachev Politburo could take would be to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan where they are engaged in a genocidal campaign offering few lasting gains to the USSR. As in Austria and Finland, means could be found to ensure that Afghanistan would be nonaligned and lightly armed. Moscow could declare a victory and devote more energies to pressing problems at home.
Empire-building is a showy but expensive business. Moscow's interests would be well served by curbing Soviet military support for clients from Angola to Vietnam in return for improvements in East-West relations.
What can the West offer the Kremlin as part of a peace package?
First of all, a place in a far-reaching Middle East settlement. Since Moscow can easily stoke the flames of conflict in the region, we should give the Kremlin a stake in peace rather than turmoil.
Second, we should take note of Moscow's renewed interest in curbing a high-tech arms race. The Soviet leaders fear that US technological and economic prowess could upset the present superpower parity; they may welcome a compromise that could benefit both sides. Even if no match for US ``star wars,'' the Soviets could find ways to penetrate any US defensive shield. Better for East and West to prevent new rounds of arms competition; uphold existing arms control accords; and find ways to reduce anxieties about strategic breakthroughs and surprise attack. Overkill on both sides gives ample room for arms curbs that could strengthen mutual security.
The USSR needs trade, but so does the US. Moscow favors the label ``made in USA'' but is inhibited by many barriers erected by Congress and the executive branch. There is enormous room for expanding Soviet-US trade without handing over the latest super- computers. American oil rigs could help Russia recover its Siberian and offshore reserves in ways that would make both sides richer and ease world energy shortages.
Finally, both Moscow and Washington are nervous about their near neighbors. The Soviets should steer clear of Central America and the Caribbean; the West should underscore its interest in peaceful trade with Eastern Europe without jeopardizing Communist regimes there.
All this makes for a full agenda. Some parts of it can be initiated by unilateral action; e.g., softening antagonistic rhetoric, facilitating trade, announcing a slowdown in weapons acquisition. Some steps require combined or parallel action or agreement. Underlying the whole process must be a new effort at understanding and empathy. If there is a will on both sides, we may find ways to establish a structure of peace in keeping with the deepest long-term needs of all peoples.
Walter C. Clemens Jr., professor of political science at Boston University, is co-author of ``Khrushchev and the Arms Race: Soviet Interests in Arms Control and Disarmament, 1954-1964.''