PERSONS interested in predicting the outcome of next month's US-Soviet summit should focus on one important element of President Reagan's approach: his attitude toward the Soviet system in general. Should he ridicule it, or should he advise Mikhail S. Gorbachev privately of necessary internal reforms? Clearly, the correct answer is neither, according to the historical record as well as the opinions from the President's official and unofficial advisers. The key to a successful summit lies in Reagan's willin gness to work within the basic rivalry that exists between the Soviet Union and the United States. The President's own answer to the above question has been at different times to pursue both tactics. The ``evil empire'' rhetoric of his first term was replaced by a direct attempt to advise the USSR. When he met Andrei A. Gromyko in September of 1984, the President implied to the then Soviet foreign minister that Moscow would benefit from domestic reform.
More recently, the President intimated that he would engage in a similar exercise with Gorbachev: He stated that his hopes for the summit are that he and Gorbachev ``can get right down to discussing problems between us and an agenda for the future so that we can eliminate the hostilities and the suspicions, if that is possible.'' Eliminating hostility and suspicion between adversaries is a contradiction in terms.
However, there is some hopeful evidence of a slight shift in emphasis in the President's remarks. His most recent statements convey a realization that seeking resolutions to problems between the superpowers ``doesn't mean that we have to love each other or that we have to change each other's system.''
It is possible that Reagan is taking his cue from National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, whose two speeches concerning US/Soviet relations conveyed the realization that the US has no illusions that the Soviet Union will change fundamentally and that ``anyone who works on the concrete issues dividing these countries knows that practical policy decisions are never made on the assumption that a fundamental change in Soviet-American relations is anywhere in sight.''
Another man who has had extensive experience working on these concrete issues -- former President Richard M. Nixon -- has also had the President's ear of late.
Concerning summit meetings, Nixon observes that ``such meetings will contribute to the cause of peace, however, only if both leaders recognize that tensions between the two nations are due not to the fact that we do not understand each other but to the fact that we do understand that we have diametrically opposed ideologies and geopolitical interests.''
The impossibility of persuading Soviet leaders to abandon their entrenched interests or fundamentally reform their system was communicated to Reagan by Gromyko; and Gorbachev treated the American public, through Time magazine, to a display of the arrogant infallibility of Soviet leaders and their indomitable system.
As to other policies, the Soviets have no intention of yielding to moral coaching by American officials. Case in point: human rights abuses. No issue raises the ire of the American public more. American officials have on many occasions raised this issue with their Soviet counterparts. The Soviets have inevitably rejected a substantive exchange of views, arguing that no interference in Soviet internal policies will be brooked and claiming that similar violations occur in the United States.
Nixon's experience is again instructive. His advice that ``we should make human rights a top-priority private issue but not a public issue,'' stems from his success in persuading the Soviets to allow more Jews to emigrate, not by persuading them of their moral obligation, but by impressing on them the importance of the issue to Americans and the effect that leniency would have in producing further benefits due to an improved relationship. He recounts in his memoirs the realizat ion that ``the more public pressure we placed on Soviet leaders, the more intransigent they would become.''
But the Congress chose to make the issue public by passing the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked Jewish emigration to most-favored-nation status. The Soviets responded by sharply decreasing the number of exit visas granted by more than the 50 percent. Nixon correctly observed ``that it was utterly unrealistic to think that a fundamental change in the Soviet system could be brought about because we refused to grant MFN status.''
Realizing that this facet of the Soviet police state will not change on an American whim permits one to allow the Soviets to save face while Jews are allowed to emigrate or dissidents are treated with more lenience.
Convincing the American public of this immutable rivalry and the private or public posture that it requires is fundamentally necessary to pursuing a consistent, coherent policy based on incremental improvements in Soviet behavior and their requisite rewards. This includes both foreign policy with respect to Soviet actions directly involving the US, its allies, or third-world nations and domestic policy, specifically human rights abuses.
It is essential during the summit that neither side resort to instructing the other about its system, but that a meaningful dialogue take place within the competitive atmosphere. One hopes the President understands this.
Charles Bradford Woodhouse is a member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.