Take a look around: US-Soviet relations are back to `normal'. Dialogue and trade are back, but don't expect arms accord soon

Anyone who has ever wondered what ``normal'' relations might be like between the Soviet Union and the United States should take a look around. This condition, after the Geneva summit, is about as ``normal'' as the relationship is likely to be in the visible future. We are back to where we were just before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, but with three differences.

At that time we had a workable arms control agreement in place, SALT II was about to be ratified, and the diplomats were already at work on the preliminary stages of future agreements to follow after.

At that time there was still a vestige of the illusion left over from early ``d'etente'' days that somehow there could be a long-term, tension-free relationship.

Also, at that time the Soviet economy was still moving ahead at a brisk pace and relative Soviet military strength was rising. The US economy was suffering from dangerous inflation and its military posture was suffering from post-Vietnam lethargy.

During the intervening six years those three conditions have been modified. There is no solid arms control agreement in place and no certainty that arms control will be extended. The old illusion of a possible easy relationship is gone. The relative economic and military postures have shifted to the advantage of the US.

Otherwise, a full diplomatic dialogue is back in operation. The men at the top talk to each other and plan to do so again once a year. Consulates will open in Kiev and New York. The Soviet airline, Aeroflot, will again be allowed to fly directly to the US. The US will sell all the grain to the Soviets that they will accept.

At the time of the Afghan invasion, a US party of seven was in Kiev preparing to open a consulate there. A Soviet party of 17 was doing the same in New York.

In other words, the Geneva summit meant that in spite of the things the US and USSR dislike about each other, they will express their dislikes and differences within the framework of normal diplomatic relations.

Another way of saying it is that the two greatest powers on earth have completed a six-year experiment in arms-length and rhetorically hostile coexistence and decided that they will both be better off to change the scenery and try coexistence within a conventional framework of dialogue, discourse, and trade.

The change in framework has already made one change in publicly aired issues. The US will cease trying to change Soviet policy on human rights by public protest. Instead, they will seek more exit visas for Soviets through private diplomacy.

Another change is the serious pursuit through diplomacy of a settlement of the Afghan problem. There is a glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel. The Soviets want assurances that the US, Pakistan, and Iran will not take advantage of a pullout. They say they will pull their troops out after they get the assurances. The US says the assurances could come after, or possibly even with, withdrawal.

Which comes first, assurances or withdrawal? A compromise is conceivable. Some State Department officials think such a compromise might be one of the first concrete results of the summit.

There is less expectation of early change in arms control. The political conditions in Washington are not favorable to a settlement. For an explanation, note that the group calling itself neoconserva-tives held a conference in Washington last week. At the conference speakers took the line that the Soviet economy is so soft that continued US economic and political pressure might force a change of government.

Neoconservatives are heavily represented at the White House and exert maximum pressure on presidential policy. They oppose any new arms accord. One high government official appraises the arms control situation in these terms:

Richard Perle, principal arms control expert at the Pentagon, opposes any arms agreement. No one at the State Department equals his weight in the policymak-ing process. Chief US arms expert, Paul Nitze, believes that an agreement is possible and desirable. He favors US positions that could lead to agreement. But to split the difference between the positions means no accord. What is needed is someone at State to counterbalance the influence of Perle, allowing Nitze's position to move ahead. Without such a counterbalance, no new arms agreement is possible.

Ideological differences between the US and USSR will continue during the new ``normalcy.'' So will differences over the Soviet presence in such places as Ethiopia and Angola and US policy on Nicaragua.

The Soviets will undoubtedly continue to seek to extend the range of their political and military influence; that is, to seek clients and associates in the third world of uncommitted countries and win defectors from the American system. The US will continue to seek to contain the range of Soviet influence. Any idea that the Soviets would give up trying to expand or the Americans give up trying to contain has gone with the record of the past six years.

But it is reasonable to think that the pursuit of expansion and containment when conducted within the framework of normal diplomatic relations will be less likely to lead to miscalculations and misunderstandings. Would the Soviets have invaded Afghanistan had they known what reaction it would provoke? There has been no similar venture since.

There remains the possibility of an arms accord to cut the cost of both countries' arms burden if Messrs. Reagan and Gorbachev come to want it enough. It is conceivable, but not yet likely.

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