SOVIET EXPLANATIONS notwithstanding, the shooting down of an unarmed South Korean airliner with Americans aboard provides a classic example of how a single, ill-conceived action by the U.S.S.R. can rebound devastatingly on the American psyche and boomerang on the Kremlin itself.
Instant, grievous damage to those committed to negotiations with the Soviet Union already has occurred. The missile that struck the Korean jumbo jet scored a direct political hit on American "doves." And the most intractable hardliners, who insist that the Russians are beyond trusting, and are bound to violate every agreement with the United States, suddenly have received an injection of political adrenalin.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the champions of moderation inside the Reagan administration -- notably at the State Department -- maintained that the tempest in the United States was bound to subside, and that the imperatives which drive this country to seek negotiated compromises with the Soviet Union are still operative.
But events now threaten to move beyond the control of the foreign policy making establishment, if not beyond the realm of rational thinking altogether. To a large extent, the climate of public opinion in the United States, and the political realities facing President Reagan will shape the response, rather than the advice of diplomatic specialists.
Instinctively, President Reagan has positioned himself to run with the tide of outrage -- or even whip it higher. By excoriating Soviet behavior as terroristic and inhuman, Reagan has assured that no one will be able to outflank him on the right -- at least in rhetoric.
The larger tragedy is that we are witnessing a revival of passions and perceptions that all too often have frozen the two superpowers into immobility. Since World War II the politics of American-Soviet relations has revolved around two conflicting perceptions in this nation.
The first is that the Soviet Union, although a society with values totally antithetical to our own, nevertheless has a government with which it is possible to negotiate, and to work out mutually advantageous, binding agreements. The second is that the Soviet Union, in President Reagan's own words, is an "evil empire" that lies, cheats, and is prepared to violate every pledge that becomes inexpedient for its purposes.
Americans are generally unaware, however, that there is a double "devil image" at work on both sides of the superpower divide, and that each tends to nourish the other's most malevolent suspicions. For as much as the two nations have learned from their global competition, each has a bent for miscalculation, and neither has been adept at forecasting the long-term consequences of their actions on the other.
It is totally improbable that the decision made by Soviet officials to follow standing orders to force down, or shoot down, any intruding aircraft encompassed a realization of the total impact the action would have on overall U.S.-Soviet relations.
To the American mind, the decision was political madness. But from the Soviet perspective, the odds are that the decision was almost a reflex action, perhaps one taken with little thought -- or care -- that the airliner had taken off from the United States, and included American passengers.
In either case, to the Soviet mind the violation of Soviet airspace in a region of acute sensitivity hits the rawest nerve ends, especially where the United States is concerned. It evokes bitter memories of helplessness and weakness dating back to American U-2 spy plane flights of the late 1950s, when neither Soviet aircraft nor missiles could fly high enough to reach the intruders, or could prevent penetrations of Soviet borders by other American or Western aircraft.
Indeed, a group of Soviet officers is reported to have been executed by firing squad for failure to shoot down foreign aircraft which entered the Soviet Far East Command's airspace several years ago.
When the Soviet Union takes actions that impinge on American interests, Americans assume that the Kremlin has made a judgment that gives paramount attention to the American stake in whatever matter is at issue. But that is by no means the way the Soviet system works, nor does the American system work that way either, for that matter. Each nation has its fixations on its own direct interests, its own memories, and its own priorities.
In this case, Soviet institutional memory was more likely to have been focused on the humiliating penetration of 1,000 miles of Soviet territory by the South Korean airliner that landed on a frozen lake near Murmansk in 1978. In Soviet eyes, South Koreans are extremely suspect of provocative actions under the shield of American power, and the entry of another off-course South Korean airliner would have made Soviet military commanders bristle with righteous indignation.
But that indignation is more than matched by the American emotions unleashed by the downing of the civilian jetliner last week. Even if the Soviet Union's accusation that the airliner was on an intelligence gathering mission were true, the Soviets appear not to comprehend that Americans, nevertheless, would look on the killing of 269 men, women and children as a wanton act.
The misjudgment is a recurring one. The Soviet Union repeatedly has misconstrued how its actions will rebound on the American scene, especially on matters of propriety, morality and ethics. In doing so, it often undercuts the position of Americans most committed to negotiations with it.
The greatest misjudgment in recent years, of course, involved the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Soviet leaders knew that the invasion was bound to have some repercussions on what was then the strained condition of U.S.-Soviet "detente," but that was thought to be a risk worth taking, a risk in which any damage could be repaired. Soviet planners were startled, Soviet sources subsequently acknowledged, by the crushing damage inflicted on American "doves" at all levels by the Afghan venture. Afghanistan became the crowning blow to the so-called decade of detente.
It has taken four years to recover only a small fraction of the lost ground in American- Soviet equilibrium, through limited negotiating gains recently achieved. In American eyes, that makes it even more incredible that the Soviet Union would now jeopardize newly- won advances by reckless action over the Sea of Okhotsk.
But this is where the United States misreads the U.S.S.R. For in the Kremlin's perspective, the U.S.-Soviet accord on grain sales, and marginal agreements on other subordinate issues, do not add up to a thaw between Washington and Moscow that must be preserved at all costs.
On the contrary, the Soviet Union is at least as suspicious of the Reagan administration as the administration is of the Kremlin.
Two American specialists, for example, have underlined this point in a new analysis in Foreign Policy quarterly. The Soviet leadership sees the Reagan administration "as viscerally and profoundly hostile," write specialists Lawrence T. Caldwell of Occidental College, a recent scholar-in-residence for two years at the Central Intelligence Agency, and Robert Legvold, senior Soviet specialist for the Council on Foreign Relations.
When the deeper trends in current U.S.- Soviet relations are examined, the two professors say, "The trends, frankly, are far more discouraging and potentially dangerous than is understood by many American commentators, who know little of the mood in Moscow."
The administration's military buildup, its commitments to ideological struggle with the Soviet Union, its military assertiveness, and what Soviet analysts see as its "doctrines of war fighting and escalation dominance," the authors say, all convince Soviet officials that Washington now rejects "the Soviet Union's right to sqexist and . . . its place in international politics."
This "does not rule out the possibility of some marginal steps to prevent relations from getting worse," Caldwell-Legvold say. This could even include a summit conference with Reagan, although "they (the Soviets) are loath to aid his re-election."
The Kremlin sees itself as the innocent, aggrieved party in the most substantive negotiations, those aimed at limiting nuclear missiles of European and intercontinental range. As the authors point out, the Soviets are convinced that the administration's negotiating position is a "sham," put forward purely for political purposes.
Unless the Reagan administration "changes its stance more than seems likely," they say, "there will be no INF (Intermediate Nuclear Force) agreement and almost certainly no START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) agreement before the 1984 elections . . ."
The authors of the Foreign Policy article couple this bleak assessment with a plea for the Reagan administration to be more forthcoming in bargaining with the U.S.S.R., on grounds that "the Soviets are ready to go a long way in limiting nuclear arms," if approached with more equitable negotiating offers.
But the shooting down of the South Korean airliner has overtaken even these pessimistic assessments. Now those hardliners who embrace the devil image have a chance to preserve the American outrage long enough to convert it into political currency. If they succeed, it will become immeasurably harder to sustain the political support required to bring any negotiation with the Soviet Union to a successful conclusion.
No agreement that the wisest expert could contrive between the two superpowers can surmount total suspicion. But in the climate that exists this weekend only extremists flourish. Much of the nation's own political outlook on the start of a new presidential race, therefore, as well as the state of relations between the two nuclear superpowers, is now precariously dependent on where the public mood in the United States finally comes to rest.
Every American who has ever flown in an airplane can vicariously share the vulnerability of being shot out of the air, and thus lay claim to telling the Reagan administration what a fitting response to the Soviet Union should be. What an unpleasant ricochet this must be to the leaders in the Kremlin.