Soviet foreign policy is undergoing the same fundamental reassessment as domestic programs, according to Yevgeny Primakov, a senior Soviet official. The Soviets have adopted what Mr. Primakov calls a new philosophy of foreign policy. This, he said in an interview with the Monitor yesterday, includes a more flexible and responsive approach to issues, more attention to public opinion both in the Soviet Union and the West, and ultimately lower defense expenditures.
One of the key changes, however, is ideological. A longstanding assumption of Soviet foreign policy - that Western capitalism will almost inevitably develop into a military threat to the Soviet Union - has been dropped, Primakov suggested.
Primakov is director of the Institute of World Economics and International Relations, the country's leading foreign policy think tank. His predecessor in this position was Alexander Yakovlev, now a full member of the ruling Politburo.
Primakov is a candidate member of the Communist Party Central Committee, and is believed to be close to party leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He has been known until recently as a specialist on regional affairs, but has apparently assumed a broader brief. And in yesterday's interview, he answered questions on Soviet-American relations, arms control, and the Soviet attitude toward defense.
The ideological change outlined by Primakov essentially lessens the Soviet Union's perception of the risk posed by the the West. It thus broadens the long-term prospects for cooperation between the Soviet Union and the West, Primakov believes. It should also eventually permit a significant cut in defense expenditures. This, Primakov and other officials say, is particularly important at this stage in Mr. Gorbachev's efforts to restructure the country's economic system.
Soviet ideologists define imperialism as the highest form of capitalism. Until now they have said it invariably leads to the growth of militarism, directed mostly at the Soviet Union. The Soviet Military Encyclopedic Dictionary of 1984 notes that militarism is growing in the West. ``The struggle with militarism is one of the most important tasks of world revolution and Soviet foreign policy,'' the dictionary concludes.
Primakov says militarism is no longer considered to be an inherent feature of all Western countries. ``Take Switzerland, for example, an extremely developed capitalist state, but it has not given rise to militarism.''
Japan's example shows that even high-speed economic development in a capitalist country does not necessarily give rise to militarism, Primakov said. Japan had only just begun to show militarist tendencies, he asserted. (In January, Tokyo announced that its defense budget would increase.) This change was, Primakov claimed, partly encouraged by the US, which wished to reduce Japan's economic competitiveness.
A staff member of Primakov's institute credited Primakov with the new formulation. Primakov deferred to Gorbachev, but he stressed, as those working on internal reforms often do, that the idea was in fact a return to original Leninist principles.
The logical extension of this approach is Gorbachev's principle of ``reasonable sufficiency'' in defense. Primakov defined this as the maintenance ``at minimal necessary cost'' of ``the situation where neither side can avoid a destructive retaliatory strike'' in the event of a nuclear attack. The speed with which the Soviet Union can reduce military expenditures, however, depends to a considerable degree on the US, Primakov asserted. If the US was able to develop an effective ``star wars'' program - ``though I and many colleagues don't believe this is very possible'' - then the Soviets would not be able to reduce its strategic offensive forces.
Though domestic reforms are meeting resistance from various quarters, the changes in foreign policy and ``reasonable sufficiency'' in defense have encountered few problems, Primakov says. In fact ``one of our very important military commanders'' recently congratulated him on an article in which he laid out many of these ideas.
Primakov and other foreign policy specialists say that the formulation of foreign policy has also changed. Academic institutions are more closely involved. Primakov says his own institute receives assignments from the leadership and itself raises issues with the leadership. Asked how the institute worked in foreign policy under previous leaders, he answered laconically, ``Less intensively.''
Foreign policy under Gorbachev has become more dynamic, Primakov asserts. ``We correct our position, we are constantly on the move.'' This, he noted with pleasure, seems to disconcert some people in the West.
``The West has become accustomed to our inertness. We used to take up a position and occupy it for an unbelievably long time, despite the fact conditions had changed, and despite [contrary] public opinion.''
One example of attention to public opinion, Primakov asserts, was the decision in February to separate the issue of medium-range missiles from the package of proposals at the superpower summit in Iceland. This decision was greatly influenced, Primakov claims, by the position of West European countries and by feedback from the Moscow International Peace Forum.
Other points made by Primakov include:
Possibility of a superpower summit. ``I am still optimistic.'' But the US has hardened its position at the arms control talks in Geneva. ``Perhaps this is caused by the internal political situation in the US. Perhaps President Reagan or his entourage consider that he should not look too keen for an agreement [on intermediate nuclear forces].''
Intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). ``We want this agreement very much.'' An INF agreement could have a major impact on other areas of disarmament: ``This would be the first agreement in history that leads to the physical destruction of modern weapons.'' Its verification provisions could also have an impact on other negotiations.
On an arms embargo against Iran and Iraq: ``The position of the Soviet Union will become clear when the question is voted on in the UN.''
On the possibility of restoring ties with Israel: ``Why not? Everything depends on the circumstances.'' Gorbachev recently said that the absence of relations with Israel is abnormal. ``However, these relations were broken off under certain circumstances, and they can only be restored under certain circumstances - the political settlement of the situation in the Middle East. And I am not certain that the whole US leadership would like us to restore these relations.''