SOVIETICUS; American Perceptions and Soviet Realities. By Stephen F. Cohen. Norton. 160 pp. $12.95.

STEPHEN COHEN ranks as one of America's foremost commentators on Soviet affairs. Unlike too many other "experts," he both speaks Russian and has a first-hand knowledge of the country. His columns in The Nation under the title "Sovieticus," which are reproduced in this book, often open up small windows on the Soviet world, let in light, expose corners before kept in darkness by ignorance or prejudice.

His reading of Russian society offers cold comfort to those who argue that the Soviet system will collapse under the weight of its own inefficiency. The Communist Party has been legitimized in the eyes of the Russian people by World War II, when it discarded revolutionary and international values in favor of traditional nationalist ones. To a society traumatized by the Nazi invasion, a party which places the defense of the country at the top of its list of priorities is bound to gain the support of the Russian people, no matter the sacrifices required to support a bloated defense establishment. Nor must one hope for a revolution of frustrated consumers -- while discontent with official corruption is widespread, millions of Soviet citizens have a vested interest in a system which favors job security over one which stresses efficiency and personal responsibility. Nor must one look for a change of official attitudes as a result of pressure from the movement of liberal dissidents. People like Andrei Sakharov are certainly courageous, worthy of sympathy and admiration. But they have no following in Russia and, in fact, are locked into a hopeless situation, having themselves rejected both the solutions of revolution from below and reform from above. On the contrary, in a country where nostalgia for Stalin remains strong, where one constantly hears calls for a return to traditional Russian values and "labor discipline" (a synonym for a Terror pour encourager les autres), where the office of the general secretary of the Communist Party has forfeited much of its former power to an increasingly fissiparous party, the prospect of a barely veiled military dictatorship, the specter of "Bonapartism" so long dreaded by the Fathers of the Revolution, appears far more likely than liberal reform.

In America, debate over policy toward the Soviet Union too often seems to split the country between conservatives who see every agreement with Soviet leaders as a surrender, and liberals who insist that most of our dangers are self-inflicted, to be remedied by unremitting pressure on our own government. "Sovieticus" slips into the second catagory, if for no other reason than Cohen seeks to educate American opinion rather than berate the Russns. For this reason, many of his remarks seem, unfairly perhaps, to lack balance, to offer replies to the more extreme perceptions, or misperceptions, of the right. He sometimes appears to confuse the rhetoric of the Reagan administration, admittedly Khomenian in its first four years, with the substance of its policies, which have, in fact, demonstrated restraint almost to the point of inactivity.

But Cohen is a realist. His final article "A Program for D,etente," recognizes that unilateral concessions to show American good will do not stand the test of history -- presidents like Franklin Roosevelt who have based their policies toward the Soviet Union on sentiment or personal diplomacy have been the least successful. The cynical men of the Kremlin are far more likely to interpret unilateral gestures by the United States as a trick or a confession of weakness than as a willingness seriously to negotiate. In any case, they are prevented by the very institutions they represent from responding in kind. Concrete proposals based on reciprocity have the best chance of acceptance in Moscow.

If, as Cohen suggests, the Soviet Union needs "d,etente, lots and lots of d,etente," before it can progress and reform, then Soviet leaders must recognize that the responsibility for the hardening of American attitudes toward their country is largely their own. ON WRITING AND POLITICS, 1967-1983 By Gunter Grass Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 157 pp. $13.95.

FORTY YEARS ago this May the war in Europe ended. For Americans, this, like the commemoration of the Normandy landings last year, was a nostalgic occasion. The pleasure of that victory still lingers for us, like the afterglow of last year's championship match, because the opposition was both so militarily skillful and so unspeakably evil. But while these memories leave us with a certain moral uplift, quite naturallly they produce bewilderment in Germany. German reaction to the 12 or so years of Nazi power have run the gamut from an outright denial that the Holocaust happened (admittedly a fringe view), to those who point out that ours is a murderous century and that, in any case, Allies who engaged in a strategic bombing offensive whose only purpose was to kill women and children, or who implemented a Stalinist Terror whose victims at least doubled in number those of Hitler's camps, are hardly in a position to deliver the Sunday sermon to the sinful.

Not surprisingly, Gunter Grass adopts none of these arguments. He admits to enjoying the luxury of claiming an age exemption and to having committed no crime against humanity more serious than that of attending the weekly meetings of the Hitler Youth. Nevertheless, he is puzzled by memories of pastors and priests in his native Danzig who prayed for the victory of the German armies and for the health of the Fuehrer, but who never once wished God's mercy on the persecuted Jews, whose gaunt, burned-out synagogue stood only a few hundred yards away.

Grass finds the explanation, not in human bestiality, but in the fragmentation of responsibilities, the subdivision of the human conscience into narrow networks, the bureaucratization of moral values so that loyalty to superiors and the implementation of orders are elevated into the imperium of human virtue. His vision of Hell is that of Kafka and Orwell -- a world directed by bureaucratic machines whose many- layered structure of responsibilities means no responsibility at all. In Grass' view, those who stood aside and did nothing are as guilty as Eichmann himself.

None of this is especially original. But Gunter Grass' arguments are offered from fresh perspectives and in a language which, so far as I can tell, is splendidly translated. His humanity saves him from pessimism. The writer must be engag,e for it is he who struggles against the "transparent society" of data banks, listening devices, an unlimited faith in technological progress, and ideological powers who claim exclusive possession of the truth but who, in the end, leave behind "only the muck of a new bureaucracy" -- the class that Marx forgot. Traditionally, the writer has left to future generations the assessment of his work. However, for the first time in the history of our species, the writer can no longer assume the existence of posterity. All the more reason, therefore, to cry out, to protest, to bring men to their senses. We are in trouble, he tells us, but we are not dead yet. OBSERVATIONS Selected Speeches and Essays, 1982-84. By Henry Kissinger. Little, Brown. 246 pp. $17.95

IT IS QUITE possible that Henry Kissinger will come to occupy a place in the history of American diplomacy far larger than his brief tenure as secretary of state might merit in itself. For he may well be credited with the evolution of American foreign policy from an amateurish pastime whose principal characteristics have been a naive belief in permanent solutions and the possibility of achieving world harmony, into a profession whose practitioners realize that conflict is permanent and maneuver according to a rational calculation of American national interests. For the moment, however, the verdict on Kissinger's influence must stand in abeyance while America decides just how far she cares to adjust to her relative decline as a world power.

Kissinger's Observations tell you just about everything you ever wanted to know about the nuclear arms race, the time bomb of Third World debt, and the potential consequences of muddled Western responses to Soviet challenges. Once you have read his book, you will realize why you were always afraid to ask. His message is clear -- we live in an unstable and dangerous world. The days when the United States, backed by 52 percent of world GNP, its nuclear monopoly and collection of docile allies dependent on New World largess for their survival, could everywhere impose a Pax Americana are well and truly over. Foreign competition has reduced our economic power, the Soviets stand ready to occupy any vacuum created by oversight or miscalculation, and our allies too often adopt positions in East-West relations more suitable for neutrals than friends.

However, Kissinger is a historian and, as such, takes the long view. With characteristic lucidity, he argues that there is no need to succumb to the hysteria of the anti-nuclear activists, nor to send your tax-deductable donations to the "theological school" of diplomacy which contends that the walls of the Kremlin will come tumblin' down once the right notes have sounded on the ideological trumpet. The Soviet Union is not on the verge of collapse, but its situation is far from enviable. Led by a brittle bureaucracy dedicated to nothing more elevated than its own perpetuation in power, the Soviet Union is, as the popular joke goes, the only nation in the world which is almost completely surrounded by unfriendly communist countries. Allied unity based on common perceptions of economic, political and defense interests of the West will allow America to navigate in the treacherous waters of a nuclear world. What is required of America is a bipartisan foreign policy which combines traditional American moral idealism with geopolitical insight. Let us pray that Kissinger's message is heeded. THAILE SELASSIE'S WAR The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935-1941. By Anthony Mockler. Random House. 454 pp. $24.95.

TODAY, WE THINK of Ethiopia, when we think of it, as yet another Third World country with a jumped-up Marxist military dictatorship and a population that exists somewhere between mere poverty and utter starvation. However, this was not always so. Fifty years ago Ethiopia seemed impossibly exotic, a mountainous bastion which had heroically resisted the tidal wave of European imperialism that had engulfed the rest of Africa. In 1930, generals and journalists flocked to Addis Abada to attend the coronation of the young Emperor Haile Selassie in a decor which appeared almost medieval -- scores of nobles in their black cloaks and oversized hats, palace lions, an imperial guard that saluted smartly but which was shoeless, and enameled spitoons ordered specially for the occasion. Five years later, some of the same generals and journalists were back, this time to witness the Italian invasion of the country.

The following six years when Ethopia was absorbed into Africa Orientale Italiana were tragic but exhilarating ones, which did nothing to lessen its fascination for the outside world. Quite the contrary, one immediately sees how Ethiopia became a fertile source for Evelyn Waugh's satire -- in this bleak, archaic land, ordinary Englishmen by the very normalcy of their lives appeared absurd, while the bizarre, the theatrical, the majestically barbaric became the common currency of everyday life.

The outbreak of war in 1940 found the British position in East Africa serious but not disastrous, while that of the Italians was disastrous but not serious. The subsequent British invasion of Ethiopia, which seemed to enlist every eccentric in the British Empire, combined improvisation and farce in almost equal measure. The British were saved in this campaign, which was very much a close run thing, by bluff, Italian timidity, and men like the nervous, brilliant Orde Wingate for whom Ethiopia's Biblical associations seemed almost to push beyond the brink of dementia. He was convinced that he and his motley "Gideon Force" were the long-awaited Davids come to slay the Italian Goliath. Anthony Mockler recounts the fascinating story of these years with thoroughness, sensitivity and just the right touch of ironic humour. Haile Selassie's War is both a tour de force and a terrific read.