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Reagan opening to negotiate with USSR

PRESIDENT Reagan's critics have, at times, complained that he has the ''luck of the Irish.'' The changing of the guard in the Kremlin may prove that complaint correct one more time.

At his breakfast press conference last week, on the occasion of the 18th anniversary of Monitor senior Washington correspondent Godfrey Sperling's press breakfasts, he was alert to the possibility of a new opening with the Soviets. Asked why he felt more hopeful about relations with the Soviet Union, the President referred to Vice-President George Bush's meeting with Konstantin Chernenko. ''He felt that we must both take a part in seeing that regional conflicts did not get out of control, that there should be safeguards against any inadvertent use of nuclear weapons . . . his whole tone and his words were such that indicated that he believed that there was an area for us to come to agreement on these things.''

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Pressed on the same point later in the meeting, Mr. Reagan talked about the advantage of dealing with a new Soviet leadership. ''. . . the very fact that there is a new leadership, that there is someone there who has not gone out on record as making statements that he would then have to retract in order to change a position or moderate his position. Yes, we're going to try and take advantage of this to establish contact.''

Such a statement might raise some eyebrows at home, of course - the eyebrows of those who remember that Ronald Reagan has spoken rather strongly about the Soviet system. The President obviously does not think that a change of leadership in the US is necessary in order to deal with the Soviets. One important key to his own rhetorical and negotiating style came out in a remark he made about an entirely different matter. Asked what reason moderate Arabs had to think they could deal with Israel when it has rejected the Reagan peace plan of 1982, the President responded, ''I see much of what people are saying before they get there to the table - it's a little bit like those days when I was a union negotiator with management. And you make your position as strong as you can in advance of the negotiations, hoping to do as well as you can.''

Can one assume the same can be said of Mr. Reagan's remarks about the Soviet Union, before actually negotiating with it? One cannot know for certain, of course. But let us look at three points. First, the President has in the past shown he knows how to compromise. Second, the arms buildup has not been an end in itself, but a way (he hoped) of bringing the Soviets to a bargaining table standing on what the US would consider level ground. Third, this election will hinge on two major elements: foreign policy and the economy. Nothing could help the economy more than getting the budget deficit in hand, and nothing would hold out the prospect of bringing down the deficit more than a subsidence in the arms race.

In a current series of articles on nuclear weapons by Freeman Dyson in The New Yorker, Dyson discusses the different perceptions of Soviet and US military leaders. He notes the widely different historical experiences of the two nations. The verbal belligerence of the Soviets, he says, masks an intuitive confidence ''in the ability of the Soviet armed forces and population to withstand whatever devastation may be inflicted upon them. . . .''

Rather than a statement of intended aggression, he interprets this as akin to a nation's belief in its own viability. ''Hard as it may be for Americans to accept, the confidence of the Russian people in their ability to survive the worst that we can do to them is a stabilizing influence, which it is to our advantage to preserve.''

Farther on he writes, ''It does us no good to continue bewailing the fact that Russian political traditions are less humane and more violent than ours. Our task is not to re-create the Russians in our own image but to deal with them as they are.''

Either as the result of new weapons spending or what may be a fortuitous change at the Kremlin, Mr. Reagan may yet get to deal with the Russians. If he does, he will not be dealing out of naivete about their system. If he understands enough about where this generation of Soviets is coming from - not only 1917 and Lenin, but the whole mind-set of Mother Russia and its sufferings, which is also part of the legacy of today's Soviet leaders - he could yet alter the tone and substance of foreign relations as much as his views on government have succeeded in setting the domestic agenda for years to come.

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