A good way to get a grip on what is going on these days between Washington and Moscow is to remember what it was like back when Henry Kissinger was leading Richard Nixon to Moscow and Gerald Ford to Vladivostok. Those were the days of what we called ``d'etente.'' They were heady and exciting days. The central piece in that first d'etente was SALT I, an accord that put limits on strategic weapons. But SALT was a small part of the complex of ideas that swirled around when Dr. Kissinger was slipping clandestinely off to Peking one day, and then to Moscow soon thereafter.
The great international corporations were to get in on a new relationship between East and West. They rushed agents off to Moscow to line up office space. There were to be joint ventures of precisely the kind now bringing exciting change in China.
Soviet and United States diplomats were getting so chummy and talking so briskly about mutual solving of world problems that the NATO allies became alarmed. Though Paris, London, and Bonn favor a less dangerous superpower relationship, there was great concern d'etente would go too far and create a Soviet-US ``condominium'' that would run the world without consultation with the allies. D'etente was a many-faced thing that seemed to forecast almost a Soviet-American partnership.
It is accurate now to talk about a second d'etente.
Soviet and US diplomats today are not limiting their work to clearing medium-range nuclear missiles out of Europe. Serious talks are going on about a follow-up that would cut back drastically on the numbers of long-range missiles Moscow and Washington point at each other.
Beyond that is a continuing dialogue over ways of getting Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. Other quiet talks deal with more exit visas for Soviet dissidents - tacitly linked, in turn, to talks to remove trade barriers that could include grant of most-favored-nation status to the Soviets.
And of course there are Nicaragua, Angola, and Mozambique, in which the US backs one faction and the Soviets another. There is careful maneuvering in the Middle East, where both countries' warships now operate in the Gulf without incident. There have been delicate, tentative talks about possible cooperation in seeking to end the Iran-Iraq war. And in Washington, a few hardy souls have begun wondering whether Moscow might be helpful rather than harmful in another try at an Arab-Israeli peace effort.
The flavor of the present d'etente is conveyed by the fact that there has not been friction between US and Soviet warships in the Gulf, but there has been no actual collaboration either.
This second d'etente is free of the illusions that made the first d'etente so exciting at the time. The giant Western corporations are not rushing teams off to Moscow. There is no idea of a Soviet-American partnership. There is no assumption Moscow will cease doing the things that distress the West. There is only the mildest touch of anxiety in London, Paris, and Bonn that the Soviet-US relationship might get too chummy for the good of the others.
There is in this second d'etente a realization by both that the other is a big country with interests of its own that it will pursue by its own lights, even when that means a strain in the relationship.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the context of this d'etente is the acceptance in Moscow that the US is not willing to accept a condition of military inferiority.
In the Brezhnev era, the Soviets acted on the assumption that ``the correlation of forces'' was moving in their favor. They assumed their economy would outpace the US, that they could outbuild the US in weapons, that the US would accept inferiority.
Those days are gone. The US economy has boomed while their's has languished. US weaponry has kept pace with Soviet, and in some respects moved ahead. It has been aided by a long US lead in new computer-age technologies. The ``correlation of forces'' has favored the West since the days of the first d'etente.
How long will this second d'etente last?
That depends largely on whether Mikhail Gorbachev turns the Soviet Union into a satisfied power. Great nations go through phases of growth, expansion, consolidation, and, sometimes, contraction. From Stalin through Brezhnev, the Soviet Union was expansionist, engaged in building an empire. It had a long reach - even into the Caribbean.
History has been largely made up of other countries that reached for empire, and then settled back. Spain was once the world's most aggressively expansionist power. Then France took the lead, and then Germany. Britain built the greatest empire of all time. But the urge to create an empire has ebbed from all of them.
Will the Russian bear ever be satisfied? No one can know the answer. We are at the beginning of a new phase in Soviet history. No once can foresee what the long-range result will be of the impact of Mr. Gorbachev upon the Russian peoples.