WHATEVER happened to smiling Mikhail Gorbachev, that new-style Kremlin leader who was bent on building a more open society, reforming the stultified Soviet economic system, and cultivating friendly relations with the rest of the world? Could that be the same Mikhail Gorbachev who sanctioned the arrest of American correspondent Nicholas Daniloff on a trumped-up espionage charge and is holding him as a hostage to trade for a Soviet spy in the United States?
It could be, it is, and it is not surprising that the ``new'' Soviet leadership turns out to be little different from the old. What is surprising is that so many in the West have been so eager to see in the rise of Mr. Gorbachev a hopeful transformation in the Kremlin -- an illusion that seems to recur with varying degrees of intensity with every change of Soviet leadership.
True, Gorbachev encouraged the expectation with his apparent openness, his sweet talk addressed especially to Western Europe, China, and Japan, and his stream of seemingly flexible arms control proposals. But when push came to shove in the Nicholas Daniloff affair he gave the West a useful if brutal reminder of the true nature of the Soviet regime.
He has simply confirmed what should have been obvious from the start, but which many in the West fervently wished would not be so -- namely, that he is a product of the same system that spawned Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. And his political survival requires him to defend unfailingly the entrenched values of a totalitarian system built on repression at home and suspicion and hostility abroad.
What does this mean for the future of Soviet-American relations? There is a tendency among some in the US, especially on the political right, to draw the wrong conclusion. The argument is made that President Reagan can't do business with the Kremlin, and that summitry and arms control negotiations should be scrapped. This reflects a popular misconception about the Soviet-American relationship and the purpose of superpower diplomacy.
Washington and Moscow communicate and negotiate not as an expression of trust and goodwill but as an imperative dictated by their profound hostility. The objective is not to convert adversaries into friends; that is impossible as far ahead as one can see. Rather, the objective is to regulate the rivalry between two nations capable of blowing up the world, to manage the struggle in a manner that minimizes the danger of conflict.
Viewed from that perspective, negotiations, including arms talks and summitry, are not a favor that one side bestows on the other. They are a matter of shared interests. Gorbachev, as Soviet leaders have done in the past, is attempting to exploit Western sentimentality about summit meetings to extract concessions on arms control as the price for a second encounter with Mr. Reagan. That, the President must reject.
So far in his nearly six years in the White House, Reagan has pursued intuitively an effective strategy for responding to the Soviet challenge. He has mastered the art of engaging the Kremlin on two levels, talking and negotiating in a cordial manner at one level while maintaining a strong American competitive posture at another.
Thus, even as he was meeting with Gorbachev and seeking the basis for an arms agreement in their first summit, he was pressing ahead with his Strategic Defense Initiative and sending more-sophisticated weapons to tribal guerrillas fighting a Soviet army of occupation in Afghanistan.
This is somewhat alien to the traditional American attitude toward relationships between individuals and nations -- an attitude that views the world in black-and-white terms of good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats, friends and enemies. In international affairs, it is a simplistic and sentimental approach that has led to wild swings in this country's relationship with Moscow, from inflated hopes to bitter disillusionment. Remember the Nixon-Kissinger promise of a new era in Soviet-American relations, followed by the collapse of d'etente and Jimmy Carter's initial denunciation of the exaggerated fear of communism followed several years later by his emotional reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In the Daniloff affair, Reagan faces the most severe test yet of his Soviet policy of negotiating with the Soviets while competing with them vigorously worldwide. He should not be surprised that Gorbachev is challenging him by allowing the KGB to grab an American journalist as a hostage while professing to seek a relaxation in tensions in relations with America. That, after all, is typical of the behavior of Soviet leaders since Stalin.
The critical question for the President is whether he can find a response to Gorbachev's challenge that preserves the dialogue with the Kremlin without compromising American values or capitulating to Soviet blackmail.
Joseph Fromm, a veteran foreign correspondent and former assistant editor of U.S. News & World Report, is US chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a fellow of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.