AS George Bush wrestles with his presidential agenda, diplomatic specialists are calling for a bold, imaginative United States policy toward Eastern Europe. Their formula for nudging along change in the Soviet-bloc countries is simple: Build a massive network of links with them and in effect integrate them into the West.
During the campaign, Vice-President Bush spoke of Eastern Europe as ``an area of opportunity'' for the West. As part of the debate taking place during this transition period, senior US officials as well as academic experts are urging a more assertive American policy. Such a policy, besides proclaiming the need for long-term structural political changes, would embrace active steps to help countries in the bloc become a normal part of Europe.
``While we want ultimately to see changes in structural systems - the legalization of Solidarity in Poland, for instance - and should work away at that, we should also do concrete things,'' says Mark Palmer, US ambassador to Hungary. ``We should be working away at what makes the tenor of the societies more livable and normal.''
Ambassador Palmer, who is zestfully promoting American activities in Hungary that encourage economic and political reform, stresses such steps as these:
Establish and expand student-exchange programs so that thousands of young people, especially at the high school level, study and live in each other's countries.
Let the Voice of America go into television, buy satellite time, and beam programs into the Soviet Union and other East European nations.
Expand the Western commercial presence in the region, encouraging business ventures and trade that will enable the East European countries to become genuine market economies.
Broaden ties between Western political groups and democratic forces in Eastern Europe now openly debating the issue of democratization.
``We should get off our black-and-white attitude and get our private sector thoroughly involved in Eastern Europe,'' says Palmer. ``We're doing things in terms of increasing travel and American business involvement, but we're doing that very half-heartedly.''
The number of US congressional delegations visiting Eastern Europe is ``pitiful,'' Palmer says. American universities are not doing enough to establish a presence in such countries as Czechoslovakia. Even the West Europeans have established few cultural centers or joint business ventures in the area.
Meanwhile, the ambassador notes, the Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese - as well as Israelis - are moving into the area commercially and culturally with great vigor.
Even under the Reagan administration Eastern Europe has been receiving increasing attention. Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead has raised the profile of the region, spurring a political dialogue about US policy in an age of Soviet glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).
ACUTELY conscious of the winds of change whipping through the Soviet Union, Washington has sought to improve ties with countries in Eastern Europe that are also struggling with pressures for reform. The administration has been pressing Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and others to restructure their economies along free-market lines and to expand human rights.
But some US officials see a growing need for diplomatic understanding of the broader, dynamic process not only in Eastern Europe but in Western Europe, which is moving toward economic integration in 1992.
``The point is to get Europe back to normal - to pre-1918, when there was one Europe and there was free movement,'' comments an experienced US official. ``That is far less dangerous than a line down the middle.''
``There are signs the Soviets can find this move tolerable,'' the official adds. ``As long as you do not change the political lines in Europe, it doesn't matter what changes there are to the substance behind those forms.
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, an expert at the Brookings Institution, observes that the US policy of differentiating between the different countries of Eastern Europe and tailoring policy accordingly goes back to the State Department under Dean Rusk in the '60s. With a change of president, he suggests, that policy should be intensified.
``We should proceed with more rigor and vigor so we can distinguish between countries like Hungary that are moving along faster than others,'' he said.
Mr. Sonnenfeldt, a national security adviser to President Nixon, propounds the view that with time there could emerge a de facto neutralization or ``Finlandization'' of Eastern Europe. He urges West Europeans and the US to keep pressing Moscow for more interchange on the economic and cultural as well as military fronts.
``Don't be coy about it,'' he remarks. ``If the Soviets are looking for normal relations with Europe, it's not just a question of changing the military confrontation but steadily reducing the division of Europe and the division of Germany - which is different from the unification of Germany. What should be on the agenda is steady removal of the barriers to movement.''
While there is broad agreement that the Western private sector - universities, trade unions, business firms - should be encouraged to expand their involvement in Eastern Europe, diplomatic specialists also caution about the limits of what can be achieved.
``You have to open up and reach out with more exchanges and the like,'' says William Schaufele, former US ambassador to Poland. ``But we can't suddenly accept the idea in this relatively short period that the process of perestroika can't be arrested. It can be arrested or slowed down.''
In the view of Ambassador Schaufele and other experts, the process of liberalization and Westernization will go more slowly than some people expect. There are growing economic problems in Hungary and Poland, for instance, he notes, and the Soviets appear more amenable to an expansion of exchanges than do some East European states. In some countries like Albania and Romania there is little movement for internal change.
``We should increase our activities to the level the traffic will bear, because liberalization allows you to do that,'' Schaufele says. ``But don't expect things to happen too rapidly - like the Soviet Union becoming a democracy in five years.''
Some senior US officials suggest that unless Bush evolves a steady, imaginative policy, one that does more than simply react to crises, he may find the West Germans supplying high technology to Eastern Europe that was deemed by other allies as too sensitive to be passed along.