Despite the strong rhetoric of the campaign, the Reagan administration's policy toward the Soviet Union will not be "unremittingly hostile" to the Kremlin and will search instead for areas of "mutual interest" in trade and arms control that might persuade Moscow to be more restrained.
"You can't just enter office with the intention of cutting off relations with the Soviet Union," said Richard V. Allen, President-elect Ronald Reagan's chief foreign policy aide, who conceded in an interview, nonetheless, that there are some Reagan advisers "who believe total denial is the only way to go."
Allen, who is the leading candidate to be Reagan's national security assistant, clearly disagrees with that view. "We may shut a negotiation down here and begin a new one there," Allen said, "or change the format or agenda or whatever . . . but we don't think it's very productive to simply slam the window. . . ."
The unanswered question at this early stage is whether the Soviets are willing to engage in any significant bargaining with the United States, given especially Reagan's long-standing identification with hard-line positions toward Moscow. The belief in the Reagan camp is that the extensive new U.S. commitment to arms spending and strategic force will induce the Kremlin to deal with the new administration out of concern for its continued security.
The precise shape of Soviet policy will depend on Reagan's positions and his choice of secretaries of state and defense. But Allen, "The object is not to be unremittingly hostile to the Soviet Union across the board. We have a relationship with the Soviet Union. It is a superpower and has huge reserves, capacities of natural resources. It's potential market for the United States and we are for peaceful trade. . . ."
In fact, Allen spoke approvingly of the policy once known as detente -- although he and every other Reagan associate avoids that term because they see it as a synonym for weakness, a discredited relic of the Nixon-Ford-Carter years. The quarrel, he explained, was over its execution.
"It wasn't the theory that was defective," Allen explained. "The theory was wonderful. It had to do with building up a web of interstitial agreements, almost the Gulliverization of the Soviet Union . . . whereby the Soviets would understand it was in their best interests to behave properly so as not to spoil the benefits that were flowing in terms of trade, technology and credit.
"It's a wonderful theory if one has the determination and courage to turn off the flow . . . when obviously miscreant behavior occurs someplace in the world; [the Soviets] can't have it both ways."
While Allen never said so in the interview, the main architect of this carrot-and-stick approach to dealing with the Soviets was former national security adviser and secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger. In a series of Soviet-American summit meetings and top-level negotiations during the early 1970s, Kissinger with Richard Nixon and later Gerald Ford Hammered out arms control agreements and trade pacts that formed a "web" of accords such as the one envisioned by Allen as possible again.
The web gradually fell apart, however, because Americans grew increasingly suspicious of Kremlin intentions on all fronts, particularly its intervention in such Third World countries as Ethiopia, Angola and Afghanistan. As early as 1975, the Soviets renounced a preferential trade treaty on grounds that Congress had linked it to a pledge of increased emigration for Jews. The SALT II accord to control the nuclear arms race ran into trouble over Soviet actions in Africa the same year.
Jimmy Carter disavowed such a policy of "linkage" for much of his term, contending that arms control was too important to be connected to Soviet actions in other areas. But even Carter was forced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan last winter to defer approval of his SALT accord, impose a grain embargo and order a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
Reagan, at his first news conference following the election, explicitly revived "linkage" for his Soviet policy. So if the Allen view prevails, the United States can be expected to make certain overtures to the Soviets in an effort to reopen the superpower dialogue -- in effect, producing a carrot.
A modification of the grain embargo may be the first step. Reagan promised as a candidate to end the grain embargo and Allen repeated in the interview that "there is a likelihood [the president-elect] would reconsider the grain embargo and lift it."
As for the SALT accord, Reagan has already repudiated the treaty signed by Carter and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. But Allen -- in an interview with The Washington Post and National Public Radio's "Communique" program -- emphasized that the Reagan administration is still committed to the SALT process.
"Much of the atmosphere surrounding the Reagan administration's approach to SALT will have regrettably been determined by election year rhetoric . . .," he said. "That doesn't mean that you scrap everything in SALT. . . Gov. Reagan really believes in arms reduction. And he has said time and again SALT II is not arms reduction."
The Soviets have not indicated whether they are willing to reopen the SALT issue, insisting thus far that a treaty already exists and should be acted on by the Senate.