THE Reagan administration took office six years ago with an underlying assumption that the Soviet Union is implacably and unchangeably hostile to the United States. That assumption has shaped both the foreign and domestic policies of the administration.
It is the philosophical foundation for the enormous arms buildup.
It is the excuse for cutting back on welfare programs, on the theory that guns against the Soviets are more important than butter for the poor at home.
It is a major cause of the budget deficit, which is by now a dangerous burden on the American economy.
Ronald Reagan has two years of his presidency left. Is he going to continue during those two years to operate on the basis of that same assumption about the implacable hostility of the Soviet Union?
Or is he going to assume that the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev has made a fundamental difference in Moscow in priorities and purposes?
That question lies behind an extraordinary deputation to Moscow which spent three hours with Mr. Gorbachev there last Wednesday.
The American group was headed by Henry Kissinger, who ran American foreign policy for Presidents Nixon and Ford, and by Cyrus Vance, who did the same for most of the Carter presidency. It included Jeane Kirkpatrick, who is the most prominent member of the neoconservative faction of ex-Democrats-turned-Republican who are fiercely loyal to the ``implacable hostility'' doctrine. It included Gen. David Jones, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, widely respected in military quarters; Harold Brown, who was secretary of defense in the Carter term; and Peter Peterson, secretary of commerce in the Nixon Cabinet.
There were Republicans, Democrats, one neoconservative, and one top general. The trip was organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan organization. It was a weighty deputation. If its members could reach collective agreement, they could influence thinking in Washington at a critical time.
They came back over the weekend at a moment the White House was under pressure from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to commit the US to an early, partial deployment of ``star wars.'' That would mean giving up any serious effort to reach an arms control agreement with the Soviets, in other words to opt for two more years of confrontation rather than a search for possible accommodation.
Members of the deputation took to the airwaves over the weekend. There will be more appearances. There is no agreed conclusion. What they think, however, will show up in coming weeks in the budget debate in Congress, where the outcome will be decided. Congress will vote for confrontation by voting funds for early star-wars deployment, or vote for reaching for accommodation by refusing the funds.
So far we know the following about the visit and its aftermath:
Mr. Gorbachev told the Americans that Soviet-US relations are at a ``crossroads.'' Dr. Kissinger and Mr. Vance have both since said they agree that it is a crossroads. Vance favors going ahead down the road of consultation and seeking an arms control agreement. Kissinger doubts that the arms control agreement which he thinks was sketched out at Reykjavik would be to American advantage. Ms. Kirkpatrick found Gorbachev to be impressive, intelligent, and charming; she praised him for ``new thinking,'' but said it did not include Afghanistan or arms control.
At this writing we have yet to hear from Harold Brown or General Jones. The net weight of the trip will not be evident until the debate over the star-wars budget is finished. For the moment it is simply interesting that about as influential a collection of American foreign policy thinkers as you could easily find have gone to Moscow to see for themselves whether they think it is time for a new look at the new Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev.