To understand the essence of the Korean airliner tragedy, it is worth recalling a serious incident between Russia and Great Britain that nearly led to war 80 years ago.

In 1904, the Russian fleet was steaming from the Baltic to the Far East to fight the Japanese. One night in the North Sea off the Dogger Bank the Russian ships opened fire and, as it turned out, sank some fishing trawlers and killed some British fishermen. The Russians indignantly claimed that they had fired in self-defense because they were under attack by Japanese torpedo boats. London was outraged. The Russians were "savages and lunatics."

But cooler heads prevailed. The czar eventually agreed to arbitration by the International Court. Russian military honor was upheld by the court's findings, but Russia apologized and paid compensation. The incident was closed. Ironically, it marked the end of several decades of Anglo-Russian hostility. Within three years the two countries had become virtual allies, because their long-term interests prevailed over the immediate demands of the crisis.

The Korean airliner crisis is not likely to lead to even a remotely similar diplomatic revolution. But it is a moment when we have to ask whether we are dealing with a serious incident or confronting a sea change in relations. Has Soviet policy suddenly changed? Do we need to shift our policies?

Superpower relations are bad. There is no political dialogue, little trade, no bilateral cooperation, no cultural exchange and, now, not even occasional diplomatic contact at higher levels. The entire relationship seems to be reduced to two shaky arms control negotiations in Geneva and the sale of grain. And even these frail links are in jeopardy. The attack on Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was a brutal shock that threatens to wipe out some recent progress.

Not too long ago, there were hints of arms- control breakthroughs. We signed a grain agreement. A concession in the sale to Moscow of pipe-laying equipment was approved by the president. A much heralded meeting between George Shultz and Andrei Gromyko in Madrid was to be the first of a series of steps to the summit. Now the Soviets poison the atmosphere with ever more absurd spy charges. The United States adopts a "measured" response, but indulges in the most sweeping accusations. The president invokes the memory of John Kennedy's call for a long twilight struggle, and the Soviets routinely warn of the "bleak reality" of the growing danger of war.

Yet, Yuri Andropov returns to his vacation spa. The White House takes comfort in the fact that the president's vivid descriptions of Soviet perfidy have proven to be right. The United Nations cannot organize itself to condemn the attack. Only Pope John Paul II seems to have penetrated this curious complacency to ask whether we are now in a prewar period.

Probably not. This is not a crisis marking the dividing line between two eras. We are not confronting a new, suddenly more aggressive Soviet Union. Indeed, the crisis unfortunately seems to confirm the unchanging nature of Soviet conduct. Soviet foreign policy is not markedly different now than it was three weeks ago, or even three years ago.

But we are dealing with a new leader. We have seen how the Soviet regime handles a crisis without Leonid Brezhnev. It does not inspire confidence; in fact, it is downright scary. We have become accustomed to Soviet leaders who instinctively knew when to retreat, how to manipulate and maneuver, when to take risks and when to avoid them. We even relied on that instinct in numerous crises. Now we cannot be sure who is in charge, or for how long. We have to hope that Soviet national interests will prevail and whoever is in power will act accordingly.

Will Soviet policy be altered by this crisis? Probably not significantly. The Soviet strategic position has not changed in just three weeks. In the West, the Soviets still have to face NATO's rearmament. Andropov managed to find the time to answer a two-month-old letter from the German Social Democrats, keeping alive some options in the Geneva arms control talks. In the East, the American secretary of defense travels to China, so a leading Soviet Sinologist also goes to Peking to keep the door open. Even in the Lebanese crisis, as in Chad, it is noteworthy that the Soviets began inciting trouble long before the airliner incident.

As for U.S. relations, one could speculate that Andropov and his Politburo colleagues have shrewdly distanced themselves from the Korean disaster. The Soviet military has been left to explain its behavior. Far from having seized power, it seems to be twisting slowly in the wind. Andropov has been notably absent from public view; no statements have thus far been issued in his name. Perhaps he still wants a summit. Even Gromyko and Marshal Ustinov seem unusually subdued, although Soviet propaganda is reaching new highs in toxic content.

Moreover, the Korean crisis does not change the fact that the Soviet Union has a new leadership, not firmly in power or fixed in its course. Moscow still faces major internal problems as well as serious troubles all along its periphery, from Warsaw to Kabul to Peking. The Korean disaster is serious, but nevertheless an episode in a longer East-West struggle that has been developing since the Red Army invaded Afghanistan.

Should the United States change its policies? Does this crisis confirm the hopelessness of any decent relationship with the Soviet Union? Are we inviting dangerous tests by our "soft" response?

Thus far, the Reagan administration, despite some questionable hyperbole, seems to be pursuing a steady and prudent course. Our operational policy is about the same as before the crisis. Far-reaching changes are not yet called for. We still need a strong defense, but not an emergency buildup. We still need the support of our allies, especially now when we are deploying new missiles in Europe. We still need public support, though opinion polls cannot dictate constant shifts. We even need the United Nations, more than we care to admit. And we still need diplomacy; great powers cannot afford emotional binges. Foreign policy is the pursuit of the national interest, not psychotherapy.

Even if we do not need to make fundamental changes, the situation is still worrisome. The Korean crisis demonstrates how little is left of the relationship of the superpowers. The major issues that concern us--Central America, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Poland--are not under serious discussion with the Soviets. It was only quite recently that Shultz announced that we were finally strong enough to begin negotiations with Moscow.

While the president received credit for not breaking off the Geneva arms control talks, their existence may be small comfort because there is no political framework for them to succeed. Arms control is in danger of becoming a technical exercise in matching missile warheads. Even if there is progress, can the president still meet with the leader of a barbaric country that engages in terroristic acts and mass murder?

Of course, we can wait until the crisis fades. Unfortunately, the public memory will become clouded. Only the experts will recall the details. The U2 affair of May 1960 froze relations until the inauguration of John Kennedy the next January. The United States never apologized as Khrushchev demanded, though President Eisenhower did take responsibility for the mission. Another reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by the Soviets in July 1960. Four American airmen were killed; two survivors were returned to the United States, but not until after Kennedy had taken office. In June 1961 there was a Kennedy-Khrushchev summit meeting, but then came the Berlin Wall, the Cuban crisis, and so forth.

Throughout the postwar period we have been extremely lucky. In any other age, the United States and the Soviet Union would have long since gone to war. Perhaps in the nuclear era that choice is permanently ruled out. The United States and the Soviet Union should have overriding common interests in avoiding nuclear war and therefore in regulating their relations. This is the conventional wisdom confirmed by repeated attempts to find an accommodation. But it is also true that we all too easily lapse into the most vile epithets, and we keep asking whether we can really compromise with evil. This is a disturbing moral question, but it is not the essence of international politics. The operational question is how we proceed from this point.

First, the Korean incident needs to be resolved. It is unreal to expect, or to keep demanding, a humiliating apology. If Andropov did so it would not mean much, for he would soon be turned out. But one suspects he is looking for an out without having to challenge Soviet military honor. The United States should offer to submit the controversy to an impartial investigation by any mutually acceptable institution or groups of nations. Pending a judgment, as an earnest of good intentions the United States, U.S.S.R. and South Korea could appropriate a sum of money to compensate the victims. The United States and others could then lift the flight boycott, while new ground rules for international traffic were negotiated. Some Soviet officials are informally acknowledging a "mistake," and at some point a suitably high-level Soviet official will have to do the same and express "regrets."

Then, the United States has to reopen the channels to Moscow. It is scarcely appeasement to meet with Gromyko. Presidents and secretaries of state have met with him before and after the Berlin Wall, the Cuban crisis, the Czech invasion and Afghanistan. Two heavily armed superpowers cannot afford to suspend all contact, even to please the governors of New York and New Jersey. A summit meeting may still be desirable but now needs a very sober review. If the Soviets refuse our gestures, so be it. At least we will know that we are in for a long, cold winter.

Sooner or later, we will return to diplomacy. When we do, we need to go beyond timid procedures. It was taken as major progress that Shultz had finally decided to meet with Gromyko as part of a preliminary to the summit. But the proposed first steps were to be pitifully small: cultural exchange and the opening of a consulate in Kiev are not serious subjects.

The United States must decide what it wants and expects from the Soviet Union and what, if anything, it is willing to give up in return. Do we insist that Moscow stop meddling in Central America, get out of Afghanistan and stop encouraging Syria? But should we bargain with Moscow over Nicaragua, Afghanistan or Lebanon? Do we reverse ourselves and invite Moscow into the Mideast political process, or into the Caribbean?

What about Poland--do we have any terms for normalization? Indeed, how do we see the dangerous disintegration of the Soviet empire, which seems to be the new "sick man" of Europe? What does the policy of "differentiation" announced by George Bush in Vienna mean in practice? Is there some level of trade that does not feed the Soviet war machine, but satisfies our own commercial interests and keeps us competitive with our allies?

We surely want a reduction in the infamous SS20 missiles. Would we give up the Pershing missiles in return, as Paul Nitze informally proposed over a year ago? Are we really prepared to reduce our own missile and bomber forces by some common denominator the Soviets could agree to? If the Scowcroft commission develops a new strategic arms control policy, will we press it on the Soviets, or allow it to be nibbled to death by the Pentagon?

These questions begin to form a serious agenda. Even in the wake of such a major tragedy, they have to be debated, preferably before the election campaign makes it even more difficult to concentrate on the long-term national interest.

By maintaining his current moderate position, the president has found himself in some unusual political company. But it is unfair to charge him, as some critics on the right have, with seeking 1970s-style d,etente. He is doing what all his predecessors have been compelled to do: to see whether there is any acceptable alternative to hostility and confrontation in Soviet-American relations. Perhaps there is none, but Reagan can never be sure until he fully explores the course he was moving on before the Korean incident. He was starting to add an emphasis on a basic policy of containment. The real tragedy now would be for him to abandon it altogether.