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US and Soviets test waters for future negotiating

That old Western journalist, Karl Marx, wrote in one of his dispatches to the New York Tribune that the Western powers should be wary about the bargaining tactics of the ruler in the Kremlin.

Marx described what today would be called a good-cop-bad-cop routine in which the czar played the sympathetic role but asked the Western allies for concessions to placate his Kremlin ''war party.''

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Something like that bargaining technique unfolded this week as Andrei Gromyko amiably deadpanned his way through meetings with America's leaders while his Kremlin boss and Tass grumbled against Washington snares in bad-cop fashion back at home.

President Reagan, meanwhile, left his own bad-cop rhetoric even further behind as he proposed a series of new ideas to discuss in order to create trust between the two superpowers on military intentions.

The net result was that the world seemed a safer place than it had been for more than a year. But the process of returning to substantive bargaining was still in its infancy, awaiting the test of concrete actions.

Each side, in fact, seems to feel that the leader on the other may be too inhibited by his ''war party'' to move very fast or very far in the direction of new dovish behavior. White House advisers (and many academic Kremlinologists) feel that hawkish opinion has dominated over detente opinion in the Politburo for at least a year. Upper-level Soviet planners appear to feel that the hawkish Caspar Weinberger-Richard Perle faction among Mr. Reagan's advisers is dominant.

But keeping score on factionalism in both camps should not divert attention from the larger strategic picture.

First, Mr. Reagan has finally shown what his chief of staff, Jim Baker, has long said were his true intentions. That is to go down in the history books as a leader who helped turn the arms spiral downward. Mr. Reagan's strategy, seen from this perspective, has been to modernize America's defenses, talk tough for benefit of his right wing, then claim he has succeeded in bringing the Russians to the bargaining table.

The goad, in this scenario, was the voting of new weapons systems and the promise of an even tougher combination of Stealth bomber, cruise missile penetration, and ''star wars'' defense for the future.

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But the carrot to match this stick kept being postponed - by events in Poland , by the downed Korean airliner, and by Soviet Politburo anger at Reagan rhetoric. Now Mr. Reagan has produced at least a general description of what his carrot might contain. And the result is being sniffed if not yet nibbled.

It is interesting to assess, paraphrasing a US election slogan, whether Mr. Gromyko is better off today than he was a year ago. Had the Korean airliner not been shot down in September of 1983, Messrs. Gromyko, Shultz, and Reagan would have held meetings a year ago at the start of the 1983 United Nations General Assembly.

At that time, a thaw might have made it more difficult for the Reagan administration to hold West European opinion behind the installation of new NATO missiles. It might have made it harder for Mr. Reagan to win congressional approval for continuing fast defense buildup in the face of huge deficits.

In either year, Mr. Gromyko had to represent a weak top leader at home. In neither year has his Foreign Ministry succeeded in repairing the long breach with China. The Soviet foreign minister did hold two less-noticed meetings with his Peking counterpart in New York this week. No Western specialist knows their full content. But the Chinese have told US diplomats that nothing much happened.

If so, Moscow is still in the extraordinary position of having had cool-to-cold relations simultaneously with the US, China, Japan, and Western Europe. In Reagan's first year of office it was he who nearly pulled off the negative grand slam of irritating China, the USSR, Western Europe, and Japan at the same time.

Recently the shoe has been on the other foot. And it's not surprising that Mr. Gromyko should be attempting to achieve some degree of normalization with China and Washington - especially since those overtures play well in both halves of Europe. The Kremlin's recent veto of tension-easing visits to West Germany by East Germany's Erich Honecker and Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov didn't help Soviet prestige on either side of the somewhat rusty Iron Curtain.

What is particularly important about the cautious Gromyko exploration is that Washington and Moscow now may have an opportunity to set the pattern for their relations for many years to come. If Mr. Reagan's lead over Walter Mondale continues to hold, he could have both four years and a strong mandate. Within the Politburo the time may be approaching for a new generation to assure continuity of leadership for a decade or more.

Any historian knows better than to count on either event. But if both powers have stable leadership over a period of years, bargaining over new mechanisms for military double-checking - such as those proposed at the UN by Mr. Reagan - may seem more achievable.

At first glance, Moscow might not seem to need such bargaining. Since Stalin's death, Kremlin planners have moved from being virtually defenseless before US strategic might to gaining approximate parity on intercontinental nuclear missiles as well as having powerful, remodeled conventional forces.

But Soviet economic growth is weakening. A US push on a ''star wars'' defense against nuclear missiles would stretch the Kremlin budget. And the cost of maintaining East European allies is expected to escalate sharply in the next decade.

Looking ahead, Kremlin technicians also can project the power that China might represent if its economy gains even a portion of the strength that other Far Eastern nations have reaped by adapting Western market economy methods.

Looking ahead in Washington, Mr. Reagan knows he must act at once on deficits - and some stretch-out in defense costs would help.

All of which should make bargaining for a respite desirable before too much time passes.

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