Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday that the Soviet leadership has shown it can make "hard choices," and he called for continued expansion of Soviet-American cooperation.

Baker suggested that both nations redouble their efforts to halt the spread of nuclear and chemical weapons, begin new discussions about military strategy and doctrine, and examine ways to prevent regional conflicts such as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. He urged new cooperation on energy, environmental protection and combating terrorism as well as expanded contacts between private groups. He said the administration would include the Soviet Union in the Citizens Democracy Corps, a program the administration originally designed to help channel private U.S. assistance to spur democracy in Eastern Europe.

In an address to the American Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations, Baker outlined what he called "pathways of mutual advantage" that both nations should pursue now that the Cold War is ending. Baker said this search must be "more ambitious" than one he urged last year in a similar address before the Berlin Wall was removed.

"Our relations could become more like those we have with many, many other governments," he said. "Cooperation could become the norm, and disagreements could be limited to specific disputes. A 'normal' relationship -- possibly even a genuine partnership -- may be within our reach."

Baker urged Americans to take a sympathetic view of Soviet economic problems. "We all must be understanding of the hardship a great people is now enduring," Baker said. "Standards of living are deteriorating, shortages are spreading, and the harvest is rotting."

Separately, administration officials said they are studying ways the United States and other Western nations could respond if this winter brings additional hardship to the Soviet people. "People are thinking, 'Under what circumstances would you try to get food and medicine {to the Soviet Union}?' " a senior official said.

Finland's foreign minister, Pertii Paasio, told Baker at the United Nations this month that Finland would cooperate in shipping food and medicine by rail if necessary to parts of the Soviet Union, officials said. Unlike other European rail systems, Finnish railroads have the same track gauge as the Soviet system; so trains can cross the border without delays to change undercarriages.

Baker's address yesterday omitted any reference to conditions that President Bush has attached to economic aid to the Soviet Union. Officials said that the conditions remain in place, but that Baker was trying to look ahead at potential cooperation.

"In our search for points of mutual advantage, we have tested whether {President Mikhail Gorbachev's encouragement of} new thinking could guide Soviet policy, even when it confronted hard choices," Baker said. "This Soviet leadership has shown it can make the right hard choices."

Noting that he and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze "both see proliferation as perhaps the greatest security challenge," Baker said both nations may explore possible sanctions against countries seeking weapons of mass destruction.