TWO recent developments raise the question whether we are prepared to accept good news. More precisely, it is important to ask whether certain people or groups have such a large stake in continued tensions and crisis that they are unwilling even to explore seriously the possibility that a change for the better exists or is within reach. One such development is the reaction to the talk before the United Nations by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in which he reported on his anti-totalitarian measures inside the Soviet Union, and on his desire to cooperate in programs addressed to global problems. He referred not just to the need to reduce the danger of nuclear war but to the need to reverse the deterioration of the world's environment.
Another development is the reaction to the statement before the UN by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat that the time has come for Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist as a nation. Also, his press conference in which he renounced terrorism.
First, Mr. Gorbachev.
The unified American reaction to Gorbachev's UN speech provides a good indication of the battle lines in United States foreign policy for the years ahead. It seems likely that the main support for Gorbachev will be headed by an unlikely alliance represented mainly by George Kennan and Ronald Reagan. Mr. Kennan, who was ambassador to the USSR for a quarter century and one of the nation's leading authorities on foreign affairs, has long contended that the logic of history dictates a reshaping of US-Soviet relations based on the cataclysmic nature of nuclear warfare, the changing situation inside the USSR, and the compression of the world into a single geographic unit in which global problems require global responses. Mr. Reagan, whose name has long been synonymous with extreme anti-Soviet sentiment, now recognizes, on the basis of his first-hand dealings with Gorbachev, that perestroika and glasnost are genuine and that a substantial opportunity now exists for restructuring the relationship between the two societies in the interests of world peace.
The scoffers and doubters are led by Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who, for at least a quarter century, have been making pronouncements about the irreversibly aggressive and malignant nature of Soviet policy. They are apparently unable to break away from rhetoric that is now terribly stale and unscholarly. They appear to resent any developments, however positive, that run counter to their analyses - even though recent events give serious promise of reducing the danger of a world nuclear holocaust.
Substantial opposition to any change in US foreign policy toward the USSR also comes from those who are more worried by Soviet friendship than by Soviet hostility. Military contractors with billions of dollars at stake naturally have no enthusiasm for any reduction of tensions that might lead to a reduction in military spending. Obviously, a genuine slowdown in the arms race could set a stage for cutbacks in the military program.
The more substantive Gorbachev has become in his reshaping of Soviet policy, the more vehement these groups have been in their contention that nothing has changed and, indeed, that Gorbachev is a smoke screen for traditional aggressiveness. When the treaty for limiting missiles in Europe was first proposed, the cry went up that US security would be compromised by any arms agreement that lacked full verification. Then, when Gorbachev accepted on-site inspection, the treaty was opposed on the grounds that it was foolhardy to allow Soviet agents to inspect US plants.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell address to the American people, warned not only of a military-industrial complex but of a scientific elite that saw in world tensions an opportunity to create and enlarge their laboratories, and, indeed, their personal power. Chief among these scientists, of course, is Edward Teller, whose main argument for supporting exotic and expensive new weapons systems is connected to his view of a persistent Soviet threat. Mr. Teller's views were originally shaped in reaction to Joseph Stalin.
The research undertakings in which Teller has figured - including ``star wars'' - were based on what he regards as the essential continuation of Stalinist policy. No doubt Teller has convinced himself that what he espouses is in the best interests of the US, but it is difficult to imagine any positive developments inside the USSR that would cause him to back away from his alarmist views.
Now for Mr. Arafat.
The essential issue is not whether Arafat is sincere but whether his sincerity should be tested. If in fact Arafat can mobilize specific and substantial support inside the PLO for recognition of Israel's right to exist, and if he can demonstrate his ability to control the extremist forces of the PLO that have been openly committed to terrorism, then a long-awaited opportunity may be at hand for a significant reduction of the combustible tensions in the Middle East. Obviously, a dramatic statement by Arafat will not by itself dispose of these tensions, but it at least represents a serious opening for a step-by-step exploration of the major issues.
No one is being asked to propose Arafat for sainthood on the basis of his recent pronouncements. What is necessary, however, is to see whether Arafat can give substance to his assurances; whether he can get the major PLO factions, including the one led by George Habash, to support his new policy. If so, then the ground may be cleared for the next step - the need for a detailed plan for a workable relationship with Israel. Such a plan should not ignore the danger of conquest by population explosion. Arafat has previously indicated that he might favor a consortium arrangement with Israel, under which foreign policy for both groups would rest with Israel. It is important to ascertain whether he still holds to this view.
The fact of Arafat's position does not by itself make peace. The complexities of the total situation all have to be addressed. But it is irresponsible to dismiss everything he says automatically or to refuse even to invite further examination.
Peace - either regionally or on a world level - must not be allowed to be jeopardized by those whose authority or station can be unhinged by suspicious new developments. A world in search of an anthem needs something more substantial than a chorus of sour notes.