WHENEVER there is, as now, a special focus on the problem of Soviet-US relations, many Americans, including Presidents, suggest that a part of the answer lies in people-to-people exchanges. Such exchanges have produced laudable results in greater understanding between peoples, but, particularly in the case of the Soviet Union, it is possible to exaggerate the potential benefits.
As Americans, we remain ever hopeful that others will understand our democratic ways and, if they do not adopt them, will look upon them with envy. In this attitude, we give too little weight to the conditioning of others within their societies.
Differences in global outlook and political philosophy between the United States and the USSR are profound at all levels. As meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev have demonstrated, he is conditioned by his experience and his rise to the top to be deeply suspicious of the US -- to look at US society and actions in terms of his own.
Russian leaders tend to see the US in mirror images of their perspectives. They have great difficulty in understanding our democracy. Their assumption that the US is controlled by a military-industrial complex or a capitalist cabal is not a propaganda ploy. They really believe it. It is almost impossible for them to conceive of a country that is not controlled by some inner group, just as the party controls the Soviet Union.
The people in such societies may be equally conditioned. Soviet citizens are accustomed by their history to assume that government is autocratic, to fear authority, but to love their country. Except for a few daring intellectuals with a wider horizon, the mass will have no thought of defying conventional wisdom or authority.
It is doubtful, too, that people-to-people exchanges with the Soviets will have any magic effect. We assume too often that a glimpse of our country will convince others of the values of our society. Too often those who come see only the superficiality without understanding the toil and ethic that have created the United States. They may seek out evidences of poverty, corruption, or arrogant power to confirm their own beliefs.
Many who have come to the US have been inspired to return to their countries and promote the ideals of freedom and democracy. Many times these are people who come from lands where democracy has been known, but imperiled or destroyed. The bulk of 'emigr'es from the USSR are from minority groups that have not shared the benefits and emotions of the Russians and will not and, in many cases, cannot return.
We can make marginal gains in understanding by opening our doors. We should be under no illusions, however, that a society as conditioned as is the Soviet society to a very different outlook will permit wide exchanges or that the results of such exchanges will fundamentally alter the attitudes toward us in the Soviet Union.
Democratic freedom and a deep sense of social responsibility as we know them are part of our conditioning. They come from the good fortune of long tradition, of a new continent, and of those who had the intellectual and moral courage to oppose authority. They were rare at the time of our founding and are rare today. We cannot expect that they will be quickly or easily transferred to those formed in a very different society.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.