MIKHAIL S. Gorbachev received a lot of attention in Paris, but not much else. Everyone was impressed with his vigor, self-confidence and quick wit. Yet as far as his basic message was concerned, there were few takers. The Soviet leader left the French and the rest of the West fascinated but unpersuaded. This is the crux of the general secretary's problem. He has convinced the skeptics that after only six months in office he is already in charge in the Kremlin. No Soviet leader has consolidated his power that quickly. And he is more than a shrewd politician. As a skilled performer, Mr. Gorbachev seems to realize that style alone will not do. He is prepared to explore new approaches, adding an element of daring imagination to the traditionally reactive and inept Soviet diplomacy.
Gorbachev's primary handicap -- the admiration for his impressive conduct notwithstanding -- is that he speaks on behalf of a regime which is widely regarded as aggressive abroad and repressive at home. With the exception of a handful of experts, Western opinion does not perceive the Soviet Union as a collection of neatly separated compartments: Here they abuse Andrei Sakharov and there they genuinely seem to want arms cuts. If Gorbachev intends to challenge Ronald Reagan as a great communicator he has to go beyond specific proposals. The general secretary has to appreciate that his government has a fundamental image problem. Negotiating arms control is like buying a car -- the reputation of the dealership is no less important than the product. And as the reaction to the Soviet arms package indicates, the Kremlin's reputation is plain lousy.
Some elements in Gorbachev's proposal are unacceptable. But others such as 50 percent reductions in delivery systems and warheads, 60 percent sublimits for each leg of a strategic triad, and hints of a willingness to allow some initial research in strategic defenses, deserve further exploration in Geneva. Moscow's arms initiative represents more than a repackaging of old ideas. For the first time, Gorbachev's new style is coupled with new substance on an important security issue.
Yet, many -- both inside and outside the Reagan administration -- are suspicious. They are suspicious not even so much of what the Soviet proposal is, but because of where it is coming from. Sure, influential ideologues in the US government will dismiss any pitch from Moscow as a dirty trick. To placate them is hopeless. But Washington is a coali- tion, and while there are no open advocates of d'etente in the Reagan camp, his advisers do include people who do not believe in shooting America in the foot in the name of anti-Soviet purity. Among them the Gorbachev proposal will receive a fair hearing. They are the general secretary's audience in Washington.
Still, for this audience to turn into a true active pro-arms-deal constituency, the Politburo will have to do more than just bargain in Geneva in earnest. A comprehensive change in Soviet behavior is badly needed.
Without such a change, progress in Geneva will be difficult to achieve. Nuclear arms control, after all, is not an end in itself. The considerable overkill capability already possessed by both sides, coupled with the great uncertainty associated with a major strike against versatile nuclear forces, has resulted in basic strategic stability.
True, well-designed arms control agreements can enhance stability. The value of arms control is more political than military. It serves as the best available symbol of superpower commitment to a rational management of their historic dispute, a commitment to keep the rivalry within the bounds of reason established by the nuclear age. But precisely because arms control is a symbol of cooperation with a principal adversary, it is fragile. For it to survive -- and especially to flourish -- a more general ch ange in mutual perceptions is a prerequisite.
That is why it was so disappointing to hear Gorbachev's disingenuous response to questions about human rights in the Soviet Union. In an interview with French television he claimed that workers are not allowed into Western parliaments (which would come as a surprise to Communist deputies in the French National Assembly) and that Jews enjoyed unparalleled freedoms in the USSR (which is presumably why so many of them vote with their feet).
Historians can cite instances of repressive governments that pursued benign foreign policies. But historians do not run public opinion on democracies. And as long as Gorbachev asserts his government's right to act as a bully toward Soviet subjects, he has to be prepared to be viewed as a nuclear bully threatening the West.
If Gorbachev is serious about engaging the United States in -- to use his language -- a more civilized relationship, he will have to learn that civility, like barbarism, starts at home.
Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.