A youthful Soviet-US dialogue

ARMS negotiators and diplomats have their own way of talking, with an emphasis on caution and strategy. High schools and college students have their way too, with stress on openness and friendship. The latter style of communication will soon have a prominent place in Soviet-American relations as the two countries move ahead with plans to expand student exchanges. The outline of the new program was agreed to by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the May summit in Moscow. Both sides have quickly mapped out the program. Larger-than-normal exchanges have already taken place this summer; next year more students will participate, building toward a goal of 100 schools and 1,500 students involved yearly by 1991.

Before the new agreement, exchanges had been limited to 50 young people a year.

Olin Robison, president of Middlebury College in Vermont, is one US educator active in the program. He makes the point that ``a broad undergraduate exchange is as important as anything in Soviet-American relations.''

We agree. While summits and negotiations at Geneva capture the headlines, conversations between thousands of young Soviets and Americans can provide diplomatic breakthroughs of their own.

The policies of nations interact constantly with popular perceptions of each other. Stereotypes feed into and are drawn out of military and political positions. But stereotypes - of dull Russians steeped in communist doctrine or greedy Americans concerned only with profit - have a hard time surviving face-to-face contacts.

American teens are going to discover shared interests - musical, academic, and a hundred other kinds - with their Soviet counterparts. College-age exchange students will live in dorms together; high schoolers will live with families. Friendships and shared ideas will thus extend to a broad range of people in both lands.

Many of the students taking part in the exchanges will represent their countries' top scholarly talent. Soviet students will be intent on absorbing whatever Western cultural, political, and academic life provides, in line with Mr. Gorbachev's emphasis on absorbing new ideas.

A fair number of these youngsters, from both nations, will go on to become the economic planners, diplomats, and decisionmakers of tomorrow. Their perceptions could have a lasting impact.

So best wishes to the young scholars taking part in this venture, and congratulations to Messrs. Reagan and Gorbachev for having the vision to get the project rolling.

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