FROM VICE PRESIDENT Mondale's attack on Soviet arms programs last Wednesday, to President Carter's criticism of the Kremlin's Africa and human-rights policies on Thursday, to Secretary of State Vance's rebuttal of his Soviet counterpart's avowal of African innocence on Saturday, to White House adviser Brzezinski's across-the-board indictment of Soviet policy on Sunday, a certain pattern emerges. It is that of an administration preoccupied but not panicked by the Soviet Union's steady day-in day-out effort to expand its power and influence, and united substantially if a bit belatedly in its determination to work out an appropriate response.
This is, of course, an unsatisfactory answer to those who think the situation lends itself to some quick and conspicuous restorative act that the administration would take if it had the wit and will. But the situation is not of that sort. For all the urgency to the question of what will the administration do , there is no sudden crisis or moment of imminent deterioration that can be put right by a stroke of brilliance or resolve.
In fact what is taking place is a long, complex and slow recalculation of the power equation betwwen the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets must learn that this new environment is not merely, for them, a feast of opportunities. For Americans, the encounter with a world the United States does not dominate requires an unnaccustomed breadth of focus and steadiness of purpose: There will be ups and downs over the long term, a relationship with Moscow alternately more competitive and more cooperative. For Jimmy Carter, who took office on the implicit - and somewhat naive - premise that easier international times lay ahead, this cannot be a welcome passage. But, we think, he is moving his administration by starts to a more somber and realistic view.
In a sense, the administration is arriving collectively at a point not far from where Zbigniew Brzezinski has been all along. It is a point consistent with the heightened apprehensions raised in the last year or so by Soviet power plays in Africa, and by Soviet strategic programs. It also happens to be a point consistent with the political mood of the country, as we sense it.
There is a risk, of course, in looking at policy geopolitically, in terms of the overall political and strategic balance, as against looking at policy from, say, an Africa viewpoint or an arms-control viewpoint.Unless wielded with sophistication and care, a geopolitical approach could cost the United States openings in particular regions or problem areas. In this administration, however, that risk seems minimized by the standing of the people involved with the particulars. We see no special unmanageable policy tension between Mr. Brzezinski and Mr. Vance, who, with his aides, is more problem solver than theoretician.
The relative consistency in tone coming to mark public administration pronouncements strikes us as within the administration's upper reaches on the kind of strategic-arms agreement that would be in the national interest; SALT has not become a pawn in an internal argument over Kremlin policy. A third is the restraint, appropriate to the circumstances, that governed the American reaction to the crisis in Zaire. The administration furnished logistical aid and political support to Zaire promptly, and followed up by a series of messages to Moscow.
Other developments should be noted, if only to counteract any impression that "the Russians are coming" and the United States simply cannot cope. Mr. Brezezinskis trip to China seems to have produced a measure of consultation and understanding well suited to reminding the Russians that the United States is not without friends in its efforts to induce Soviet restraint. This week in Washington, the administration will have the chance to make a similar point with its NATo allies. Moreover, after a somewhat rocky administration start, a congressional-executive consensus seems to be taking shape in support of a mutual review of the foreign-policy restrictions that Congress placed on the presidency under the influence of Vietnam and Watergate.
Measures like these, having to do with strengtheing relationships with other nations and enhancing the United States' own capacity to act, do not entirely answer the question of what to do on the ground today. But the signals they send to Moscow are current and they are eminently relevant to the American need to deal firmly and fairly with Soviet power over the long haul.