HOW far can relations with the Soviet Union be improved under Mikhail Gorbachev? On the eve of the Washington summit, he has published a book containing his answer. Entitled ``Perestroika'' (``Restructuring''), it lays out his program for domestic reform (which we will leave aside) and his proposals for improving international relations. While most of the substance has already been set out in his speeches, the book pulls the threads together into a more coherent and orderly statement. In Secretary Gorbachev's view of the world, two factors are critical:
The deadly menace of nuclear weapons to human survival has transformed international relations. Nuclear war is suicidal and can achieve no rational goal. Superiority is unattainable, security indivisible.
Interdependence requires cooperation for security and well-being and for coping with global problems of the environment, resources, and poverty, despite national diversity and competing interests. No nation, even superpowers, can go it alone.
In essence, Mr. Gorbachev argues, these conditions make it urgent to move beyond the ``cold war'' to cooperation and normal relations. And he outlines his conception of such relations with the other communist countries, the third world, Western Europe, and the US.
How far would his ``new thinking'' end or alleviate the tensions underlying the cold war? For the West, those tensions had four sources: (1)Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe; (2)the military threat and arms competition; (3)Soviet efforts for expansion in the third world; and (4)human rights.
Of these, Gorbachev really deals only with the second and third. Human rights are mentioned only cursorily, lumped with poverty and unemployment in the West. Eastern Europe he treats as a closed issue. He stresses that every nation must have the right to choose its own form of government and social order, without outside interference, but he blandly asserts that the East Europeans have chosen communism and skips lightly over Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Divided Germany is simply a reality - due largely to Western actions.
His ``new thinking'' focuses mainly on the nuclear issue and security, and on regional conflict.
On the nuclear and security issue, the objective should be:
1.To eliminate nuclear weapons completely, starting by cutting strategic offensive forces in half and reaffirming the ABM Treaty to limit strategic defense to research and agreed testing for 10 years.
2.To reduce all military forces to reasonable sufficiency; remove imbalances in conventional forces; redeploy such forces to make surprise attack infeasible; and adopt a defensive military doctrine.
Specifically, he reaffirms the Soviet proposals at Reykjavik and attributes President Reagan's rigid position on ``star wars'' to the hope of straining the Soviet economy or achieving superiority; he says the USSR can counter SDI if deployed, by less expensive means.
As to rivalry in the third world, he urges that both sides recognize the right of these nations to choose, on their own, regimes and social systems and refrain from interference. In discussing the Afghan invasion (as other topics), he simply misstates or twists the historical facts.
How seriously should these proposals be taken? Clearly they would not end all the tensions of the cold war. Eastern Europe, in particular, cannot be disposed of so cavalierly. It is not settled or stable for the longer term, and reform may even stimulate turmoil. The Soviet Union may well be able to continue its domination for decades, but the potential for tension will remain.
But as far as they go, Gorbachev's proposals could offer a basis for better relations, especially in regard to security. In some respects, such as the total abolition of nuclear weapons, they are hardly practical and probably undesirable. The cold war has had peace for four decades largely because of the caution induced by nuclear arsenals. The effects of their complete elimination, if feasible, would be uncertain and could be destabilizing, even if coupled with conventional arms control.
But short of that, they may offer the possibility of moving to a more stable military balance at much lower levels. Agreements could cut sharply both nuclear and conventional forces, restrain arms competition, and restructure and redeploy forces, including conventional, to stress defense. And while agreed constraints on third-world involvement would be hard to define and apply, they could well be explored.
The West need not speculate about whether the Soviets are serious. It can find the answer by negotiating. To do so, the US and its allies will have to define what they want. Since that will take time, the process should start promptly in order to minimize friction within the alliance.
Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for over 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.