Trade plus

US Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige has traveled to Moscow to explore ways of increasing two-way commerce between the United States and the Soviet Union. But just noting the convening of trade talks hardly begins to identify the extent to which Mr. Baldrige's visit symbolizes deeper efforts by the two superpowers to restore a sense of equilibrium and continuity to their strained diplomatic and political relationship. In that sense, the trade talks are an important symbol of an effort under way to improve political ties between the two nations. The trade talks represent the first bilateral consideration of commerce between the two nations since 1978 -- before the tensions produced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, and the subsequent American economic boycott followed by the large-scale US military buildup under President Reagan.

The trade talks come against a backdrop of increasing contacts between the Reagan administration and the new Gorbachev regime. Arms control talks were resumed in Geneva. And last week Secretary of State George Shultz met with Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko about a possible US-Soviet summit later this year.

That Mr. Baldrige is even in Moscow at this time underscores the desire of many people in the Reagan White House to put bilateral relations with the Soviets on a sounder footing. Mr. Baldrige's trip was opposed by top Pentagon officials, who are concerned that the Soviets will gain access to US technology that could be used for military purposes.

The US should be wary of selling products to the Soviets that could give the Russians any military advantage. And existing US laws bar such products from being sold. But beyond such obviously sensitive products as telecommunications equipment, or certain microelectronic or computer products, there are few US goods that the Soviets could not buy elsewhere. Indeed, given the pattern of disarray and mismanagement within the Soviet economy in general, some economists question to what extent the Soviets could duplicate US technological skills within the Soviet Union at all, even if the Soviets wished to do so.

There is a compelling case, in other words, for as much stepped-up trade between the two nations as possible. The more involved the relationship between the two nations commercially and politically, the greater the prospects for instilling diplomatic relations with trust.

Indeed, trade negotiators on both sides will have their work cut out for them in winning increased commerce. US-Soviet peacetime commerce has never been substantial, except during periods of agricultural need. In part the reason for the relative paucity of trade has been political. But it has also been cultural. The Soviet and US economies are starkly different. And business and consumer needs are accordingly different in both nations.

Two-way trade last year was around $3.3 billion, below the $4.4 billion level back in 1979, before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The bulk of the trade -- more than $3 billion -- is from the US side. And most of the US exports to the Soviet Union involve agricultural commodities. A new five-year agricultural pact between the two nations was signed in August 1983.

The upshot, then, seems clear: Two-way trade talks are important. But the talks are as important for what they tell us about efforts by the two sides to rebuild frayed diplomatic and political ties as they are in terms of new contracts -- as vital as such contracts could be.

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