FORMER Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once called it, simply, ``the problem of our age.'' The question of how to manage US Soviet relations has bedeviled every US president since Franklin Roosevelt. Forty years after the dawn of the cold war, as US officials prepare for the first superpower summit in five years, the task of finding a balance between toughness and compromise remains as elusive as ever.
In theory at least, US policy toward the Soviet Union has been straightfor- ward enough. It's based on a policy of ``containment'' that calls for checking the expansion of Soviet power, shoring up key allies around the world, and minimizing Soviet influence in strategically important regions. `Containment,' what does it mean?
Applying this policy has meant different things at different times. From the ``red scare'' of the early 1950s, to the d'etente of the early 1970s, to the renewed tensions of the Carter-Reagan years, views and methods have fluctuated dramatically, confounding US efforts.
``Hawks'' say the US must be willing to pay any price for military preparedness. They see a relentless buildup of Soviet arms and the potential this buildup poses for a preemptive nuclear strike against the US. They assert that the military effort should be accompanied by measures to squeeze the Soviet economy and deter Soviet influence in the third world.
``Doves'' warn against excessive reliance on military strength. They caution that such a policy can be counterproductive by strengthening hard-liners in the Kremlin and fueling unrestrained arms competition between the superpowers. They urge adequate military strength and finding areas of agreement with the Soviets. More influences on US policy today Experts say the shifts and tugs of US-Soviet policy have partly reflected external events -- third-world crises, for example, or the Soviets' decade-long succession crisis that preceded Mikhail Gorbechev's coming to power.
In addition, they note that today more hands are on the helm of American foreign policy, making it more difficult to steer. Historically, the president has been the main architect of US policy. In recent years Congress, interest groups, and public opinion have played more influential roles, sometimes dismaying US administrations.
``It adds more voices to the foreign policy chorus, not always in harmony.'' says Alexander Dallin, a professor of history at Stanford University.
But experts say the major obstacle to the smooth management of US-Soviet relations has been disagreements among policymakers and public alike concerning the nature of the Soviet threat and how to deal with it. Public views on Soviet threat differ
Polls show that the American people want arms control but don't trust the Soviets to honor the terms. The public is concerned about the rapid growth of nuclear arsenals, but also fears falling behind in the arms race.
As Professor Dallin notes, such contradictions have led to extreme swings between exaggerated optimism about the prospects for Soviet-American cooperation and, more frequently, an obsessive anxiety about the Soviet threat. At the same time, pressures brought to bear on US policy by special-interest groups have often tugged in conflicting directions.
In some instances, interest groups have worked to stiffen US policy. For example, under pressure from Jewish groups, Congress in 1968 passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment, pegging US-Soviet trade to Jewish emigration. The amendment had the laudable objective of easing the plight of Soviet Jews. But it eventually contributed to the end of a period of d'etente ushered in by the Nixon administration.
On other occasions, interest groups have resisted punative measures. American farmers eventually balked at bearing the brunt of sanctions imposed by the Carter administration to penalize the Soviets for the invasion of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, US business groups, seeking to expand trade with the Soviet bloc, continue to press for increased sales of high-technology items, even though many administration officials fear such sales could compromise long-term US security interests. Policymakers don't agree either
But underlying the conflicting perceptions among the public and interest groups are differences among policymakers themselves that, since the start of the cold war, have complicated the task of developing a consistent approach to managing US-Soviet relations.
According to one conception, outlined in a key national-security memorandum drafted in 1950, the Soviets are committed to world domination. ``The Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its own authority on the rest of the world,'' wrote the authors of NSC-68.
Adherents of this view call for drastic steps, warning that efforts to accommodate the Soviets and to negotiate differences are likely to be regarded by the Kremlin as a sign of weakness.
Others take a less apocalyptic view. They describe the Soviets as cautious pragmatists, governed less by ideology than by security fears aroused by repeated invasions from the West dating back hundreds of years.
Without ignoring Soviet antagonism, they argue that excessive emphasis on arms buildup is counterproductive. They say that the mutual interest in survival requires greater attention to resolving conflicts, managing crises, and curbing the arms race. Lessons of Vietnam deepen divisions
After the Vietnam war, the views of policy makers grew farther apart.
From this war moderates learned the limits of US power and the need to balance US-Soviet issues with closer attention to new third-world and economic issues. They saw in emerging global threats -- volatile third-world nationalism, regional conflicts, scarce resources, and overpopulation -- a need and an opportunity for greater cooperation with the Soviets. The result was five years of d'etente, launched by the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.
But for hard-liners, the central reference point was not the global changes symbolized by Vietnam, but the infamous Munich conference of 1938 where Adolph Hitler acquired part of Czechoslovakia and Western powers learned the high costs of appeasement.
Surveying the world of the 1970s, they saw the Soviets achieve strategic parity, suppression of human rights, intervention through Cuban proxies in Angola and Ethiopia, and a brutal invasion of Afghanistan. They attributed Soviet gains to the erosion of US power and global influence and called for restoring the US to a position of unquestioned military strength.
This reaction to d'etente was epitomized in the views of Ronald Reagan, whose election to the presidency in 1980 signaled the return to a more confrontational approach to US-Soviet relations.
A formula for the management of US-Soviet relations, that avoids the extremes of inflated expectations on one hand and exaggerated fears on the other, continues to elude US policymakers. Forty years after the start of the cold war, there are still no clear, agreed-upon answers to fundamental policy questions: Are the Soviets expansionist or defensive? Are they reliable treaty partners or will they exploit agreements to gain the military advantage? Are the Soviets seeking military equality or superiority ? Was d'etente a failure, or was it never really given a chance?
Disagreement on the answers to these questions occurs even within individual administrations.
Some of President Reagan's advisers say the Soviets are adversaries with whom we can do business, notes Raymond Garthoff, a specialist in US-Soviet relations at the Brookings Institution. Others say they cannot be trusted and the US should avoid negotiations, concentrate on building its defenses, and strengthen its alliances.
``One group argues for negotiating from strength, the other urges building our strength so we don't have to negotiate,'' says Dr. Garthoff. The resulting policy inevitably contains elements of both views, he adds. 40 years yields some success
But while no clear middle ground has been found between ``strength'' and ``accommodation,'' specialists in US-Soviet relations are quick to point out that four decades of relations between Washington and Moscow have not been without accomplishment. Despite successive crises, the superpowers have remained at peace. The rough nuclear balance of recent years has been preserved. Diplomatic contacts have been maintained, and in some areas expanded. Despite occasional interruptions, trade and cultural t ies, including exchanges of scientists and scholars and meetings between astronauts and cosmonauts, have been sustained.
The East-West agenda now includes important new issues like human rights.
Moreover, experts note that even though the Soviets have acquired enormous military strength, mounting Soviet foreign and domestic problems have worked advantageously for the US. Despite some improvement, relations between Moscow and Peking remain at an impasse. The Soviet military remains bogged down in the costly war in Afghanistan. The Soviet economy remains stagnant, strained by high defense expenditures. Social problems, including alcoholism, are rising at an alarming rate. The appeal of Marx ism-Leninism has waned throughout the developing world. Pressures for liberalization in Eastern Europe persist, and inside the Soviet Union a resurgence of traditional customs and languages hints at the presence of centrifugal forces which worked so disastrously on the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Where the two sides find common ground
Foreign policy experts also note that within the framework of fundamental disagreements over the management of US-Soviet relations, there are areas where the views of many Hawks and Doves do coincide.
Rhetoric: US-Soviet relations are already burdened with suspicion and mistrust. Harsh public rhetoric only aggravates a bad situation. Firmness in dealing with the Soviets needs to be coupled with conciliatory public rhetoric whenever possible.
Diplomatic contacts: Talking, alone, will not change superpower rivalry. But regular summits and routinely held meetings between US and Soviet officials and delegations can keep lines of communication open and reduce levels of distrust.
Areas of joint concern: Despite US-Soviet rivalry, the contending superpowers do have interests in common, such as containing the spread of international terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Collaboration on such matters should be pursued at every opportunity.
Crisis control measures: The US and the USSR have already agreed to crisis control and confidence-building measures, including the recently upgraded ``hot line'' and a ``nuclear accidents agreement'' designed to minimize the risks of nuclear war arising from the accidental detonation of a nuclear device. Such cooperation should be expanded to include contingency planning for other possible crisis situations.
Recently, Senators Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and John Warner (R) of Virginia chaired a panel of arms control experts. Moderates and hard-liners worked together to persuade both the Reagan administration and Soviet leader Gorbachev to consider, for future negotiation, the idea of jointly manned US-Soviet nuclear risk-management centers in Washington and Moscow. Such measures alone will not alter the fundamentally adversarial nature of the US-Soviet relationship. But combined with adequate defenses and pati ent efforts at arms reduction, they offer the best hope for improved relations, say experts.
``Even if we can't make overnight progress in arms control, we can put the relationship on a more even keel and reduce the likelihood of inadvertent crisis,'' says Michael Krepon of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. MAP: Soviet Intervention since 1945 1945-1948: Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. 1950-1953: Aid to North Korea 1956: Invasion of Hungary, 1968: Invasion of Czechoslovakia 1974-1975: Marxist takeover in Angola 1975: Aid to North Vietnam 1978: Aid to Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia 1979: Invasion of Afghanistan