Foreign policy under Mikhail Gorbachev has many of the same features as his domestic policy: a critical reassessment of previous positions, the urge to make up for lost time, and what one Western diplomat calls the willingness ``to make dramatic policy initiatives.'' Moreover, the driving force in foreign policy, Soviet and foreign observers believe, is Mr. Gorbachev himself and a small group of advisers.
As with his domestic plans, the Soviet leader's foreign policy ambitions have outstripped achievements. Efforts to obtain a comprehensive arms control package collapsed after last year's superpower summit, the Chinese have responded grudgingly to proposals for normalization, and there is no solution to the war in Afghanistan. But the array of Soviet proposals, coupled with President Reagan's troubles, appears to have had a big impact on the nation's image abroad. ``Under Gorbachev the initiative in East-West relations seems to have shifted to Moscow,'' says a Western diplomat.
Very early on, the Soviet leader, who took power two years ago today, did to the foreign policy establishment what he probably would like to do to other parts of the government: He turned it inside out. He appointed a new minister, his longtime associate Eduard Shevardnadze. Seven new deputy ministers and at least 35 new ambassadors had been named by the end of 1986.
The Communist Party Central Committee structure has also become intimately involved in policy formulation. Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev's foreign policy aide, plays the role of clearinghouse, Soviet sources say. Anatoly Dobrynin, the ambassador to Washington from 1962 to 1986 and now the head of the party's international department, plays a key role.
Possibly the most important adviser on foreign policy, however, is Alexander Yakovlev, the head of the Central Committee's propaganda department.
Some elements of foreign policy have not changed. Relations with the United States remain Moscow's central focus. Arms control is the first priority, Soviet officials say. The reason for this is largely political, a senior Western diplomat argues: An arms control agreement would undermine domestic conservative critics who argue that East-West relations are too tense to permit experimentation at home.
``If he can put across a climate of international stability, and pull out one or two agreements, he'll go a long way towards weakening the conservatives' base,'' the diplomat says.
The Soviet leadership regularly speaks of its ``new political thinking'' (simultaneously castigating Washington for its old thinking), but rarely defines what it means by this. Western observers say they see some new elements in Gorbachev's foreign policy: greater flexibility and quicker political reflexes. Soviet sources also stress flexibility, and add the primacy of politics over defense considerations in foreign policy decisionmaking.
To this may be added a willingness to travel. Gorbachev has already been to France, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and India, in addition to the superpower summits at Geneva and Reykjavik, Iceland. This year he is expected to travel to Italy, several Latin American countries, Czechoslovakia, and, perhaps, Japan.
Gorbachev's handling of two key issues, medium-range missiles and Afghanistan, testifies to his willingness to make major concessions. In both cases Yuly Vorontsov, the first deputy foreign minister, has apparently played a key role.
At Reykjavik last October, Gorbachev linked major arms control concessions to limits on development of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (or ``star wars''). The Soviets hoped to drive a wedge between Western Europe and the US, says a senior Western diplomat. ``But when it didn't work, he dropped the idea. His response is much more realistic than his predecessors, and it betokens a much more sophisticated attitude.''
On Afghanistan, it seemed until recently that Moscow was ready to compromise only on secondary issues - allowing the limited participation of noncommunists in a government still dominated by their Afghan prot'eg'es.
This may be changing. In February 1986 Gorbachev described Afghanistan as a ``bleeding wound.'' Soviet officials now admit the war is unpopular at home. And Pakistan, which provides logistical support and sanctuary to anti-Kabul guerrillas and some 4 million refugees, reportedly feels that the Soviets are eager to get out.
Arthur Hartman, former US ambassador to Moscow, agrees: ``I think there's a genuine desire [on the Soviet part] to get out of Afghanistan.''
The Pakistan government is involved in indirect negotiations with Kabul, carried out through UN mediation. Sources close to the Pakistanis say that Moscow signaled a more conciliatory position immediately after Gorbachev came to power, and has continued consistently to do so. For the last six months, the Soviet Union and Pakistan have been engaged in a dialogue that was inititated, sources close to the Pakistanis say, by the Kremlin. The Pakistanis' main interlocutor has been the newly appointed Deputy Foreign Minister Vorontsov.
During the talks, sources say, the Soviets have made it clear that they would not accept a hostile regime in Kabul. But they imply they would tolerate a neutral one. They hint that their other main concern is to avoid a massacre of their Afghan allies.
Both sides say at the moment that the key issue is a time frame for Moscow's withdrawal of its troops, estimated at 115,000. The Pakistanis say they cannot accept longer than six months. Soviets officials say privately that they could leave in less than 18 months, if an agreement was reached. Neither time frame, an Asian official noted, tallies with Moscow's public determination to consolidate its prot'eg'es in Kabul.
One reason that Gorbachev's predecessors became caught up in the Afghan quagmire was a ``tendency to military approaches and solutions more than political ones,'' says a senior Soviet analyst. This approach has ended, the analyst said.
Does this mean the end of the so-called Brezhnev doctrine, articulated after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which held that a threat to one Warsaw Pact country was a threat to the rest?
``That kind of thinking would not be possible now. If such a doctrine ever existed, it is now outdated,'' the official said. ``If we keep on with our reforms, Czechoslovakia will probably invade us,'' a Soviet academic said.
Second of three articles. Next: What if Gorbachev succeeds?