There's something odd about much of our discussion of the change in the Kremlin. The burden of conducting a review if not an actual change of policy is being laid on Ronald Reagan. The thought that goes unspoken is that the death of Leonid Brezhnev gives an eager and waiting United States a chance to switch policy horses. It's as though Reagan, not Brezhnev, had died and been succeeded by someone determined to bury the unhappy legacy of his two years in power.
One can understand why Soviet spokesmen would want to encourage this view: to stress the element of continuity in the Kremlin and to make it the responsibility of the United States alone to facilitate a return to a less stressful state of affairs. The Soviet trade minister and the Kremlin's leading American expert laid just that message on an American business group making a long-scheduled visit to Moscow this week.
It's a bit different, however, to listen to the stream of advice from Americans suggesting that Reagan should take the occasion to try to thaw Soviet-American relations a bit by demonstrating good will or offering Moscow a new option.
Such advice would be a lot more relevant if Reagan had in fact left office and been replaced by a new president who wanted to reshuffle the Soviet-American cards.
In case you hadn't noticed, Reagan is still president, and still Reagan. There is no reason to suspect that, before Brezhnev died, he was desperately searching for a way to climb down from some of his more questionable stands.
Secretary of State George Shultz dropped by for breakfast at the paper just before heading for Brezhnev's funeral in Moscow. Given his reputation for being open to more conciliatory ways to serve the president's conservative purposes, I cocked an ear for signs of sensitivity to the new order. I heard none. Shultz said, if amiably, that the American approach would continue to be to make American policy "clear" to the Kremlin, to wait for Moscow to review its policy. He distinguished between a leadership transition and a policy transition -- the latter he hadn't yet seen. Asked to identify the American priority, he singled out human rights, including emigration: the Carter- proven route to grief.
Far from changing course, then, the evidence of word and deed is that Reagan believes he is on the right track. His prescription is not a review, certainly not a retreat, but more of the same: keep the pressure on, specifically in the areas of arms and trade.
The president accepts the theory that the Soviet economy is so strained it cannot satisfy the demands that the Kremlin leadership will have to put on it to keep up with the American rearmament program. As a result, this theory goes, Moscow will be forced to a historic turning inward, away from the expansionist path.
The president sees trade as the Soviet escape hatch, the way it can get around its economic vulnerabilities and continue to finance a dangerous foreign policy. This is ignored by people who claim or wish that his lifting of the pipeline sanctions was an icebreaker for Yuri Andropov, or could have been used as such. Reagan himself says no, pointing out that his lifting of the Carter grain embargo and, he might have added, his successive overtures to the Soviets to buy more grain -- all steps taken in the first instance in response to domestic pressures--went unreciprocated.
The American pipeline sanctions were traded in not to gain the gratitude of a new Politburo chief but to ease alliance strain and set the stage for what Reagan plainly intends to be tougher alliance-wide restrictions on East-West trade. Perhaps non-strategic "low tech" trade can be broadened; that's why the administration approved (and reapproved after Brezhnev died) the visit of the American business group now in Moscow. But Reagan means any expansion of trade to come on his terms.
So Reagan lives. Resisting appeals to exploit the moment is the very stuff of his policy, proof of his capacity to hang tough and wait for the Soviet Union to yield.
In Soviet-American relations, in brief, there is a new round of dares, of international chicken. Is it foolish to hope that something else might emerge from it other than a sterile argument, between Moscow and Washington on one level and in American politics on another, over whose fault the consequent worsening of tensions has been? Reagan has been too confrontation- minded and his theory of impending Soviet retreat is highly dubious. Dumbly and arrogantly, the Kremlin has fed the anxieties that fuel a hard-line American policy. Kremlin transition or not, adjustment is required on both sides, and the real question is whether either government is up to it.