If there is anything the world's most powerful nation needs at this moment in history it is a sense of balance. The question of whether America will keep its balance has pointedly arisen in connection with China during the past few days. But it pervades the whole challenge of walking the tightrope of change with democratic allies, the nonaligned third world, and the other superpower, the Soviet Union.
Take the China episode first: It involved the interpretation of a speech by Richard Holbrooke, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs. A reported key statement was: "The famous triangular diplomacy of the early 1970s is no longer an adequate conceptual framework in which to view relations with China." What is to be made of a State Department official's words that could be -- and were -- welcomed by Chinese Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping as indicating a United States tilt toward China and an end to evenhandedness in policy toward China and the Soviet Union?
Such evenhandedness had already appeared to fade with the granting of trade preference to China and the more recent agreement to let US firms sell China a wide range of "nonlethal" military equipment not available to Russia. The intent seemed to plain in strategic terms when Moscow was newly alarming both the US and nearby China with its brutal military adventure in Afghanistan.
But anything like an announcement of giving up "triangular diplomacy" looks like also giving up a certain flexibility in dealing with two nations which, though disparate in present power, are both communist totalitarian states opposed to American political principles. It would be shortsighted to foreclose an eventual return to better relations with Moscow by enshrining a tilt toward Peking.
Defense Secretary Harold Brown did not help matters in this respect when he went so far as to call the US and China "friends" even though not allies. The US or any other nation ought to be friends with all in the sense of not being enemies. But Mr. Brown's remark to reporters last month carried a certain warmth and approbation that go beyond the kind of correct diplomatic relationship appropriate with the China of today, for all its reported efforts to ameliorate the repression of the Chinese people.
More recently we have heard the words of Mr. Holbrooke which brought the favorable reaction from Mr. Deng. Others in the State Department were reportedly confused and upset over remarks by the assistant secretary that were interpreted to suggest the US would favor Peking over Moscow in future matters. Clarification is needed to spell out exactly what was meant by the remarks and a "background" briefing for reporters that seemed designed to attract attention to them.
Meanwhile, there appears to be a promising attitude in the line attributed to Mr. Holbrooke that "we will develop our relations with China on their own merits . . . ." Relationships with the Soviet Union also ought to be developed on their own merits.
Yet, as former Secretary of State Vance warned in his commencement address at Harvard last week, the interplay cannot be ignored: "We must think anew about how to manage our affairs with the People's Republic of China in relation to those with the Soviet Union. Even as we act to develop nonmilitary ties with China, we should strive to restore a more balanced approach to both countries."
Indeed, although the press has scrutinized the speech for anti-Brzezinski or anti-Carter implications, the thrust of it was, in the Vance manner, a constructive dispelling of foreign-policy myths and offering of alternatives. It bespoke the sense of balance the nation needs on all fronts:
* Maintaining a strong military -- but as a basis for, not a substitute for, diplomacy.
* Remaining firm with Moscow on Afghanistan -- but not letting this situation prevent pursuing the US national interest through attaining ratification of SALT II.
* Seeing that balanced agreements can be achieved through negotiation, with deterrents against negative outcomes combined with incentives for positive outcomes. "Denying others a fair bargain and its benefits will not alter their behavior or reduce their power; it will simply have the effect of denying ourselves the same advantages."
* Understanding that American ideals need not be abandoned in pursuit of American interests, for "in a profound sense" they coincide. "We must ultimately realize that the demand for individual freedom and economic progress cannot be long repressed without sowing the seeds of violent convulsion. Thus it is in our interest to support constructive change . . . ."
* Fostering alliances of free nations to cooperate in meeting common problems.
* Responding appropriately, and again with balance, to the third world, tomorrow's likely "cockpit of crises," as described in an excerpt from the Vance speech in today's Opinion and Commentary pages.
-- What might work against achieving progress along all these avenues? A "Dangerous" nostalgia for a world that no longer exists, one that "seemed, at least in retrospect, to have been a more orderly place in which American power could, alone, preserve that order."
It is the sort of nostalgia that can falsely erode confidence, falsely raise expectations. "It makes change in the world's condition seem all threat and no opportunity. It makes an unruly world seem more hostile than it is."
With perspective, with balance, there is glowing hope still available for the Americans of whom Mr. Vance reminds us: "The fact is that we are a people who not only have adapted well to change, but have thrived on it."