THE big news left over from Mikhail Gorbachev's speech of June 26 to the Soviet Central Committee is that he has a serious program for the radical reform of his country and also firm control of the Politburo; this means he can push hard for his program. The big question left over for Washington and the rest of the outside world is whether this is a development that we who live outside the Soviet world should welcome and encourage, or regret and discourage.
The core of the question is whether a modernized and more efficient and productive Soviet economy would make Russia a more companionable neighbor, or a more dangerous one?
On the negative side is that Nikita Khrushchev's rule, from 1953 to 1964, was one of high productivity in the Soviet Union and also one of foreign policy adventurism. The growth rate of the Soviet economy reached 7 percent during that period and amounted to almost an economic miracle. But Mr. Khrushchev tried to plant Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. That was the most hostile move the Kremlin ever made against the United States.
On the positive side, it was also during those years that ``competitive coexistence'' and d'etente in the US-Soviet relationship were invented and advanced by negotiations moving toward the SALT I treaty.
Add that it was after Khrushchev and after ``d'etente'' began to go sour that Leonid Brezhnev suppressed the ``Prague Spring'' in Czechoslovakia, put Soviet and Cuban troops into Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia, and invaded Afghanistan. The Brezhnev era was one of imperialism coupled with economic decline and stagnation.
There is not sufficient evidence on the record to conclude that Russians tend to be relaxed in foreign policy when they are prosperous, or vice versa. A livelier and more productive economic system should be able to generate better weapons, but the Russians have usually been able to generate all the weapons they wanted regardless of their economic condition. They made their greatest ever leap into modern times under Peter the Great, and this was also their period of greatest territorial expansion.
The US and the rest of the outside world can have only marginal effects on physical developments inside the Soviet Union. The Soviets are the most economically self-reliant of any great country, having within their midst virtually all raw materials necessary for a modern economy. They do not need colonies for raw materials, or markets.
But the way the new Gorbachev-generation leadership views the outside world over the next generation is likely to be shaped by the immediate reaction to the Gorbachev reform program. The attitude of the old Stalin-through-Brezhnev generation was shaped by the fact that the Western world intervened at the time of the communist revolution on the side of the old order.
British and French governments funded the ``white'' armies that resisted the revolution. The US occupied the Vladivostok area during the civil war. For a time US troops controlled the trans-Siberia Railway from Vladivostok to the Ural Mountains. US troops were also present in Archangel and Murmansk. US support for the ``whites'' was passive rather than active, but the Stalin-through-Brezhnev generation of Soviet leaders was conditioned by their experience in their own civil war to think of the West, including the US, as being hostile.
A new generation of leadership has taken over in Moscow. It has a program for the radical remaking of Soviet society, the Soviet economy, and (perhaps) Soviet relations with the outside world. Mr. Gorbachev has launched what may amount to a nonshooting civil war between the beneficiaries of the old system (the apparatchiks of the party) and the advocates of reform. It can be a political experience as strenuous for them as the civil war was. Will the leaders in the reform movement emerge from the struggle thinking of the US as being friend, or foe?