US Is Warming to Perestroika at Last

Speeches by Baker and Shevardnadze show evidence of greater mutual understanding. FOREIGN POLICY

FROM one end of the United States to the other, Secretary of State James Baker III has been pointedly celebrating the changes sweeping in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. His encouragement is aimed at US voters as much at Soviet leaders. An astute politician, Secretary Baker seems intent on rebutting domestic complaints that the Bush administration has not been enthusiastic enough about the decline of the cold war.

Meanwhile, as if intent on earning Baker's kind words, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze has been spouting self-criticism, condemning his country's invasion of Afghanistan and branding the Krasnoyarsk radar a clear arms treaty violation.

Washington hard-liners have long claimed that Krasnoyarsk was an example of Soviet duplicity. Mr. Shevardnadze's agreement comes as a mild shock.

``It says something about the Soviet mind-set that is encouraging,'' a senior State Department official said this week.

All this superpower billing and cooing would have been unthinkable a few years ago. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an ``evil empire,'' it was a rhetorical aberration that was harsh even by cold-war standards. But at the time the State Department and Pentagon were skeptical of Soviet intentions, a skepticism born in the bitter collapse of mid-'70s d'etente hopes.

When Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to power, the US was slow to proclaim him a leader from a new mold. It was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who first sized up Mr. Gorbachev with the assessment that he was a man with whom the West could ``do business.''

The Reagan administration did do business with Gorbachev, notably signing a pact scrapping intermediate-range nuclear arms. But White House rhetoric about the Soviet regime was restrained. Under President Bush, some State Department officials have talked about the dangerous instability of the East-bloc upheavals, and the administration was slow to put together packages of aid for Poland and Hungary. This led to Democratic criticism that Bush was ``timid'' on foreign policy, and ``almost nostalgic about the cold war,'' in the phrase of Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine.

Now Baker, in a speech last week in New York and one Monday in San Francisco, has struck back. Though the speeches contained no new diplomatic initiatives or arms control offers, they were a major attempt to ``pool the various strands'' of US Soviet policy, in the words of one official. They contained few downbeat notes. Baker talked of perestroika as ``a historic change,'' a ``revolution,'' and proclaimed that ``we are in a time of rising promise.''

Perestroika can be in the best interests of the US, said Baker, particularly in arms control, a main point of ``mutual advantage.'' The US, Baker said, is searching for stability via such arms control principles as:

A reduction in surprise attack capabilities, both in nuclear arms and conventional armies in Europe.

Predictability through open exchange of information via such methods as ``Open Skies'' overflights of each other's territory.

An arms control agenda expanded to include such items as chemical weapons and missile proliferation.

While Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney has speculated openly on Gorbachev's chances for political survival, Secretary Baker said uncertainties about perestroika's fate should not stop the US. ``All the more reason, not less, for us to seize the present opportunity,'' he said.

Baker's public words are background music to larger diplomatic moves. Impressions formed during personal encounters, such as the Wyoming mini-summit with its scheduled fishing expedition, mean as much or more to superpower diplomats when weighing each others' intentions.

And to a certain extent, Baker is just reiterating what other Western leaders have already said.

``I take it as the actions of a tactical politician affirming this is the drift of events,'' says John Steinbruner, of the Brookings Institution. Shevardnadze seems determined to match Baker's positive attitude. His candor before the legislative Supreme Soviet went further than USSR officials ever have in admitting that the invasion of Afghanistan was a foreign policy disaster taken in violation of legal conventions.

By pointing the finger at the late Leonid Brezhnev for making the illegal decision, Shevardnadze might be positioning the Kremlin to defend itself against the complaints of military officers that they lost the war because they were stabbed in the back by the current lineup of politicians, says Steven Miner, a Soviet policy expert at Ohio University.

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