If U.S.-Soviet relations could be measured by outward climate, the severe chill between the Carter administration and the Kremlin earlier this year seemingly has been transformed into an autumn glow. But cold snaps are bound to recur.
In two weeks of bargaining at the White House and on the periphery of the United Nations here, the Carter administration and the Soviet Union have displayed a partial convergence of interests on two prime world issues. They showed they have parallel objectives - up to a point where their built-in rivalry inevitably puts them at odds.
As the preliminary outcome demonstrates, both want an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, to avoid the unpredictable consequences of renewed Middle East warfare that could draw them into conflict on opposing sides. Nevertheless, Washington and Moscow each hopes the ultimate settlement will enhance its own influence in the region.
In addition, both superpowers want a new to limit each other's strategic nuclear arsenals, to replace the five-year accord that officially runs out Monday. For that joint interest, they have said they will continue to honor the arms ceilings in intercontinental missiles in the expiring 1972 accord until they complete a new, broader agreement in the Stragetic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT).
Neither an Arab-Israeli peace conference, nor a new U.S.-Soviet nuclear accord, is imminent, President Carter acknowledged Thursday. Yet, the prospects for both have been deliberately brightened, with reports of progress," "narrowing of differences," and agreement over the weekend on "guidelines" for a Middle East peace settlement issued in the names of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance.
This atmosphere of relative U.S.-Soviet cooperation is a basic change from the first encourters between the Carter administration and the Soviet Union last winter and spring. Then the air was filled with verbal crossfire. The Soviets were indignant over the Carter campaign for human rights in the Soviet Union. They charged that the United States sought "unilateral advantage" in nuclear bargaining.
The Carter administration voiced a counter-determination to "hang tough."
What has altered the pattern the most has been a shift from public, shouting diplomacy to private, old-style horse-trading diplomacy. It is not evident at this point - because of the secrecy of the negotiations - who has out-traded whom, or whether compromises by both sides add up to a fairly even balance.
At this very early stage in superpower negotiations on the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is the clients on the American side, the Israelis, and American Jewish organizations, who are airing great dismay. In the U.S.-Soviet nuclear negotiations, any alternate compromise agreement also is likely to bring protests from militants in Congress and elsewhere who insist on continuing to "hang tough" with the Kremlin.The Soviet Union has no similar worries about open dissent.
The Carter administration therefore automatically has a larger public and political problem over any dramatic agreement with the Soviet Union, or even the prospect of one. This hazard is intensified while other controversial international issues are in the public eye, notably the continuing struggle over ratification of the Panama Canal treaties. Opposition to the administration on one issue can rebound on another, even though they may be unrelated.
By contrast, the Soviet Union gets an immediate foreign policy dividend from an improved climate of U.S.-Soviet relations, even though there is no immediate tangible result. This is because of the Soviet posture as the champion of "detente," the ardent seeker of reduced East-West tension. With the 60th anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power forthcoming in November. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev is extremely anxious to display that his detente policy is reaping success, actual or in the offing.
It is not surprising then, that the sounds now coming from Moscow are very upbeat on the Gromyko meetings with Carter and Vance.
From a Soviet standpoint, the Gromyko discussions were indeed productive. They enhanced the likelihood that Brezhnev sometime in the future will be able to make his long-delayed trip to Washington to sign a SALT II agreement, which was projected at his 1974 meeting with President Ford at Vladivostok.
Gromyko's discussions on the Middle East also fulfilled a Soviet initiative for a joint declaration with the United States on an Arab-Israeli settlement. While that may not have produced everything the Soviets wanted, it brought outeries from Israel: some measure of satisfaction from the Arab nations with whom Soviet stock has dropped considerably in recent years, and an active Soviet role in reconvening a Geneva conference on the Middle East, where the United States and the Soviet Union would preside as cochairmen.
For the Carter administration, which is also anxious to show progress on the most important problems on its world agenda, there has also been satisfaction. That is, providing the administration can ride out, without damage, the reaction of Israel's strong supporters in Congress, and charges from the activist Jewish lobby that the U.S.-Soviet statement on the Middle East has undercut Israel.
Whatever troubles are in store domestically for the Carter administration over an eventual new nuclear accord with the Soviet Union, potential critics now can only snipe at what they think will emerge.
On either the Middle East or disarmament, there are sure to be enough tangles with the Soviets before actual settlements are reached to affect domestic appraisal of the end result.
The United States and the Soviet Union, in the meantime, have moved to agreements on other subjects through quieter diplomacy. They found accord in the last two weeks with other nations, in London, on tighter controls over the transfer of nuclear technology to world customers, and they each had a role in developing a forthcoming agreement for orderly exploitation of natural resources in Antarctica.
The stage is also set for the opening in Belgrade on Tuesday of the review conference on European Security and Cooperation with the expectation that U.S.-Soviet confrontation over human rights will be either avoided, or much more muted than originally anticipated.
No specialist on either side of the U.S.-Soviet divide, however, believes that what has transpired between them in recent months represents any thing more than a drawing back from constant bristling at one another, and a return to hard bargaining. At best, they are locked into an alternating pattern of competition and cooperation.