The killing of the passengers of Korean Air Lines Flight 7 by Soviet air defense forces has resulted in heightened tensions between the United States and Russia. In the US, there are ongoing efforts to exploit this incident on behalf of increased arms budgets and to take a tougher stance against the Soviets in a variety of forums, from the United Nations to strategic arms negotiations.
On an emotional level, it is easy to agree with ''get tough'' measures. However, it is emphatically not in our best interests to begin another round in the cold war.
The Soviets have very few real friends. Correspondingly, US citizens encounter little heartfelt animosity abroad, although there is no universal acceptance of the US as the benevolent, freedom-loving nation we believe ourselves to be. Peoples of other nations share our anger over the Korean airliner incident, but they recognize that such actions are normal Soviet behavior and there is little that can be done to alter Russian attitudes.
If we can restrain our anger, this incident provides an opportunity for the US, a chance to ease world tensions and reduce Soviet influence.
We need to stop trying to compete with the Soviets on their level. We can't win a propaganda war with a nation that totally controls its own mass media and is without scruples in dealing with truth. We cannot compete in an arms race with a nation that is willing to divert all needed resources to military development, with little regard for other legitimate needs of its people. We need to stop concentrating on competing with communism and focus instead on excellence within our own democratic, free-enterprise tradition.
Our conflict is not on any battlefield, but in the minds and hearts of men and women. We cannot lose if we concentrate on our strengths. Communism has little to offer unoppressed people.
Let me offer one example. On Christmas Eve, 1969, I was a junior naval officer on Shore Patrol duty in Cannes, France. It was my job to work with the local police to help resolve incidents involving Navy personnel on shore liberty , and also to serve as an interpreter for Shore Patrol headquarters. US forces were fighting in Vietnam at that time, and our testy relationship with France was at a low ebb. Walking the streets in uniform provided an acute personal lesson in the disdain shown to ''ugly Americans.''
Suddenly, the atmosphere changed dramatically. Telephones at headquarters rang incessantly and excited voices expressed gratitude and praise . . . for one small event. US Apollo astronauts, circling the moon, read the Christmas story from the Bible to all the people of Earth. The gist of the comments I received from French citizens was simply, ''Thank you for what you are doing on behalf of all mankind, and thank you for sharing it with us.'' That simple act had turned an enviable technical achievement into a gripping human event which touched the hearts of millions. The Soviets are not able to duplicate such an event.
I recommend four initial steps in a new approach to countering Soviet influence:
* Eliminate the shrillness in our dealings with the Soviets. Ensure that all our relationships with them are scrupulous and proper in terms of accepted international standards. Yield to them nothing on good faith, and give them nothing in the way of preferred status. Work steadily with them to reduce nuclear arms and to defuse world tensions, from a position of mature strength.
* Without undue dramatics, use every available international forum to make it clear that we, as an undisputed superpower, have the right to define the attributes of a world power. Make it clear that there is a difference between military power and genuine power on the international scene. Insist that a real world power has nothing to fear from respecting individual liberty, relatively open borders, reasonably unrestrained emigration, a free press, and a representative government that permits open participation by members of the electorate who peacefully oppose the government in power.
* Embark on a series of well-planned ventures on the frontier of science and technology. Examples include a permanent space station for use by industry and scientists of many nations; a colony on the moon; development of safe nuclear reactors and sound methods for disposing of their wastes; and mining of the ocean floor. Whenever possible, provide incentives to encourage participation from private sectors of society. Also, where appropriate, tax the profits derived from such enterprises and transfer these revenues to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to assist developing nations, not in acknowledgment of their ''right'' to such revenues, but in recognition that strong development improves resistance to communism and provides markets for our own high-technology goods.
* Undertake a complete restructuring of our military forces, not as a cost-saving effort, but in an attempt to eliminate nearly 40 years of stagnation. History teaches that a major war quickly reveals fallacies and organizational weaknesses which permeate any military establishment during a prolonged period when national survival is not challenged in combat. The US is not immune to such stagnation, and many of our defense policies, weapons, and tactics are no longer relevant. An honest self-assessment and a rigorous revitalizing of our front-line forces, rather than simply acquiring more, will make us stronger in a meaningful way, and serve to remind the Soviets that military adventurism on their part is likely to be unrewarded.
If our national indignation at the senseless taking of so many innocent lives is reduced to rhetoric, or self-defeating measures such as jeopardizing START negotiations, we will have missed a great opportunity. May we not instead channel our frustration into productive efforts that can once again provide an example and raise a banner of visible hope to oppressed but freedom-loving peoples everywhere?