Over the past two decades, we have seen numerous African nations turn away from Soviet models and political alliances -- Egypt, Somalia, Guinea, Mali, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau and Madagascar. Now the United States has the opportunity to reverse Soviet influence in the self- styled Marxist nation of Mozambique.

I recently accepted a State Department invitation to head a trade mission there. Our discussions with President Samora Machel and his government made plain that Mozambique needs and wants Western and especially American investment. I believe it is in our interest to provide it.

With the end of the Portuguese empire in 1975, Soviet-supported liberation movements came to power in Angola and Mozambique. The new government in Mozambique, its own problems unsolved, supported guerrilla movements operating against the Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia and against South Africa. Rhodesia retaliated by helping to set up an insurgency -- the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO).

Thus began a cycle of cross-border violence that continued even after the establishment of a black-headed regime in Rhodesia -- now Zimbabwe -- for South Africa then offered RENAMO bases and support within South Africa. Increasingly frustrated by African National Congress operations launched from Mozambique, South Africa began also to mount its own land and air operations in Mozambique.

Three years ago, the combination of drought, guerrilla destruction, South African raids, the loss of Western and South African economic investment and technical expertise, and the unwillingness and incapacity of the Soviets to make up that loss, had reduced Mozambique's economy to a shambles. Machel made a basic decision that his country could no longer bear the brunt of a military confrontation with South Africa.

President Reagan realized that as long as the level of cross-border violence remained high, the Soviet Union would have opportunities to expand its influence, while a decision in the region to seek a diplomatic solution and concentrate on economic development would serve the United States. Only the United States had the relationships with all parties that would allow it to mediate. And only the United States and its Western allies had the private sector, technical expertise and development assistance to offer countries such as Mozambique hope of building their economies.

The United States helped bring South Africa and Mozambique together to discuss their problems. In March 1984, they signed the Nkomati Accord. Mozambique, against the wishes of the Soviets and of most other African states, carried through on its commitment to close ANC bases. South Africa officially cut off support for RENAMO, but apparently made a major arms delivery just prior to signing the agreement.

This "golden handshake" enabled RENAMO to intensify its activities, to the dismay of the Machel government. South African-sponsored talks aimed at a cease-fire between RENAMO and Mozambique neared agreement in October 1984, when, for reasons that remain obscure, RENAMO walked away from the table.

South Africa recognizes that its basic interest lies in having a stable regime on its borders and that the Machel government could provide that stability, whereas RENAMO could not. It has steadily increased its economic and security cooperation with Mozambique and spoken out with increasing clarity about the negative effects of RENAMO's activities.

The overall voting record of Mozambique at the United Nations is not what we want, but its position on 10 key votes improved substantially during the last session. The United States is receiving even-handed treatment in the Mozambican press, and our assistance efforts are highlighted favorably.

Mozambique has joined the IMF and World Bank, signed n agreement with the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation and published a business code designed to attract Western investment. Collective farms are being turned over to private farmers and some industries, formerly state-run, are being sold to private entrepreneurs.

We have been helping to encourage a balanced relationship that includes diplomatic contacts, private investment, trade, economic and humanitarian assistance and a modest military training and assistance program.

I recognize there are those who argue that the United States should have nothing to do with a self-styled Marxist state. I disagree. The only way we can advance U.S. strategic goals in the Third World is if we compete in relevant ways -- on the ground, through our programs, our presence and our diplomacy. The United States should be ready to respond constructively to openings that advance our interests whenever they occur.