Lighter touch seen in Soviet foreign policy. But diplomats see little shift from past policies

The Russians say that ``a new broom sweeps in a new way.'' Mikhail Gorbachev is bearing that out. But it is not clear whether he is cleaning house or just stirring up dust.

Since coming into office 10 months ago, the Soviet leader has presided over a major shuffle of the Kremlin hierarchy. But many Western Kremlin-watchers here say that Soviet foreign policy has so far differed mainly in style, not in substance, from that of his predecessors.

That could be changing, with the announcement of a new Soviet arms control package that seems to bear Mr. Gorbachev's personal stamp. And it could gain further momentum after the conclusion of a once-every-five-years Communist Party Congress at the end of February at which Gorbachev is expected to strengthen his hold on the party apparatus.

For the time being, however, many Western diplomats credit Gorbachev with altering the way this country goes about its business in the world.

But if Gorbachev seems to have any overarching foreign policy ideological ``framework,'' it has yet to become apparent to Western diplomats. Instead, some say, Gorbachev seems to be something of a pragmatist, seeking ways to defuse tension and instill a degree of stability in East-West relations in order to concentrate more on the Soviet Union's internal problems. But, at base, his goals seem to differ little from those of recent Soviet leaders.

The Soviets' new arms control package is a case in point. It combines a number of earlier Soviet proposals, expands upon them, and -- to some analysts -- appears to represent some policy shifts on certain issues. It is nevertheless carefully crafted to undercut both European and domestic support in the United States for the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative, according to many Western analysts here.

Thus, the fundamental goal, an end to SDI, remains the same. What is new, says one diplomat, is that Gorbachev himself seems to be ``taking an energetic, activist role in the formulation of foreign policy.''

The last three Soviet leaders seem to have relied primarily on longtime Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to oversee foreign policy formulation and execution. Gorbachev, by contrast, seems to be taking a much more active role in shaping foreign policy himself. Then, apparently, he turns to his handpicked foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, to carry it out. ``He's largely an executor,'' says one Western diplomat of Mr. Shevardnadze.

Shevardnadze, in turn, seems to rely much more on his own Foreign Ministry staff to research foreign-policy questions and come up with specific recommendations as to how Gorbachev's objectives can be attained.

``He uses the bureaucracy a lot, and puts it to good use,'' says a Kremlin-watcher.

That is, in some measure, a reflection of Shevardnad-ze's own proclivity for hard work. He is, by one Foreign Ministry worker's account, a man who keeps long hours and studies foreign-policy position papers exhaustively.

``He is obviously well-briefed when he enters into a discussion,'' reports one Western diplomat.

But one of Shevardnadze's greatest strengths, Western diplomats say, would appear to be his ``compatibility'' with Gorbachev. Those who have dealt with Shevardnadze firsthand say he has an easy self-assurance that indicates strong support from the Soviet leader.

Some Western diplomats -- after scouring the new Communist Party program that will be adopted at next month's congress -- say there are few hints of major policy changes in the document.

Some analysts say that one Soviet priority remains improvement of ties with China. The split of some two decades with China deeply embarrasses the Soviet leadership, some diplomats say. They say it thwarts the Soviet goal of having a united world socialist community, with the USSR at its head. The Soviets will therefore be watching carefully to see whether representatives of the Chinese Communist Party attend the Soviet Congress.

Analysts also speculate that Gorbachev, in putting forward his new arms control initiative, may be showing a streak of independence from the Soviet military.

Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sergei Akhromeyev dutifully appeared alongside top party and Foreign Ministry officials at a recent press conference to declare his support for the proposal. But diplomats here say it is highly unlikely that the military would have urged the proposal on Gorbachev or have played a key role in formulating it.

Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, hinted that the latest arms proposals were, in some measure, a recognition that recent Soviet foreign-policy initiatives have not worked. Pravda said the party and government had advanced ``new daring, far-reaching realistic proposals'' because of ``cardinal changes'' in the world in recent years. The newspaper also tacitly repudiated the view that the Soviet Union could refuse to deal with Washington, as some Soviet officials have argued in the past.

Pravda said that last November's Reagan-Gorbachev summit had ``laid . . . a beginning . . . to a constructive dialogue,'' and that the ``new foreign policy actions of the USSR were prompted by the determination to overcome the negative confrontation tendencies that have been mounting in recent years.'' That could presage even more Soviet foreign-policy initiatives after the party congress.

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