AS international superpower rivalries go, the one between the United States and the Soviet Union is rather unusual. For one thing, it is fairly new - really only about 40 years old. For another, it has nothing to do with tensions along a common border (as generally understood), fear of recurrent invasion, or the other elements typical of the love-hate relationships that prevail between countries. There isn't much ``natural'' basis for a relationship between the two superpowers. In earlier eras, the ``known world'' was dominated by a handful of European powers whose leaders, if not actually related to one another by blood or marriage, at least shared a common cultural, historical, social, and religious context. But in this period, the two dominant nations on the planet do not really know each another.
Hence the value of the ``one-on-one'' interview Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had with NBC News correspondent Tom Brokaw. The American people got a good chance to see not only Mr. Gorbachev's smile, but his ``iron teeth'' as well. Of course, it wasn't really one on one; the whole enterprise depended on the voice of the off-camera interpreter. That is a part of the story of US-Soviet relations. When will there be a Soviet leader who speaks English? Will there ever be a US president who speaks Russian?
Gorbachev got points for candor by acknowledging something that is widely known, namely that Soviet scientists are working on their own version of ``star wars,'' while putting the monkey on President Reagan's back with a charge of militarizing outer space. This is typical of the way Gorbachev has been able to seize the public-relations initiative at a time when the President's position on just about everything seems to be tight-lipped stubbornness.
Gorbachev managed a straight, indeed genial, face when he trotted out his lines about Soviet troops being ``invited'' into Afghanistan. We thought of the joke of a few years ago: Q.Why have the Soviet troops been so long in Afghanistan? A.They are still looking for whoever invited them in.
The joke is, alas, as funny as it's ever been, but Gorbachev did say that Afghanistan would be high on the agenda when he meets with President Reagan next week. The acknowledgment that the situation ``needs resolution'' is helpful.
The interpreter translated from Russian into socialist Newspeak; he didn't get it all the way into American English. But that US-Soviet dialogue is under way is a good sign.