WHICH is the real Reagan policy toward Mikhail Gorbachev and company? One version sees Mr. Reagan suckering the Soviet leader with summits while attacking Gorbachev plans with activism around the world.
The opposite version sees the President as placating his own right wing with activism where it's safe, while he proceeds to seek major arms and trade agreements with Moscow.
Proponents of the first version see Reagan planners luring Mr. Gorbachev with promises of major deals by the third summit in 1987 while: (1) promoting guerrilla wars against Kremlin clients in Nicaragua, Angola, and Afghanistan; (2) showing the USSR up as a paper tiger in backing Libya (and even in defense of Black Sea territorial waters); (3) refusing to end nuclear testing and the arms buildup; and (4) continuing to make it difficult for Gorbachev to modernize his economy.
Backers of the second version note that Reagan has often provided considerable satisfaction for his right wing just before striking a bargain with its adversaries -- whether in Sacramento, the US Congress, or the Kremlin.
What seems more likely than either scenario is an attempt to accomplish some of the aims of both.
In Soviet-American relations, leaders like to coin new names for old policies. What was once called ``coexistence'' changed to ``thaw,'' then ``d'etente.'' ``Containment'' shifted to ``rollback'' and then to ``new cold war'' with more change in rhetoric than practice.
Through all this semantic wandering, one concept has remained useful for both sides. It's usually labeled compartmentalization. That seven-syllable mouthful described the way in which Washington and Moscow could, for example, maintain relatively regular relations about other matters while escalating their bitter proxy collision in Vietnam.
The opposite of compartmentalization is usually termed linkage -- the Kissinger formula that demanded good behavior in the third world if the first and second world were to improve relations.
Which tactic -- compartmentalization or linkage -- is currently in use?
On the face of it, Washington is compartmenting. Reagan seems to be seeking to emulate the old George Washington triple play: ``First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.'' While continued nuclear testing and Stinger missiles for anticommunist guerrillas make headlines, other, less-noticed Reagan steps are also taken.
The administration has just changed its policy on oil and gas technology flow to the Soviet Union. Two weeks ago it approved a license for one such technology transfer.
This is in sharp contrast to the 1982 crisis atmosphere over the Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe. Then, the administration invoked sanctions against the French subsidiary of Dresser Industries of Dallas for selling gas pumping technology to Moscow.
President Reagan's team also recently held successful talks with the Soviets on halting the spread of chemical weapons. The White House continues to press Reagan's idea for exchanging 5,000 high school and college students betweeen the superpowers, and is testing proposals for aiding computer education for Soviet youths.
Talks should start soon on the establishing of war risk-reduction centers manned by officials of both sides. And Washington still hopes that its concessions last fall at the conventional-force reduction talks in Vienna will bring about a compromise agreement.
Strong evidence suggests that the President's National Security Council and State Department advisers are planning for concrete accomplishments in US-Soviet relations by the time of the third summit.
Events could derail this timetable. A combination of Polish suppression of Solidarity, Afghan campaigns, and the death of three Kremlin leaders delayed Reagan's summitry schedule in his first term.
Any of the contentious regional issues or arms issues could force new delay. Or Gorbachev's Politburo could opt for foot-dragging in order to deal with Reagan's successor.
When House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Dante Fascell (D) of Florida recently spoke to Gorbachev in Moscow, one of his aims was to tell the Soviet leader that any Democrat who might win in 1988 would not substantially change US Soviet policy. That was intended to keep the second and third summits on schedule.
The third (1987) summit is the one at which Reagan hopes to sign substantial treaties on arms reduction. That doesn't mean the kind of zero-option propaganda that both leaders have embraced publicly. It seeks a bargain that both sides will see as reducing the danger of accidental war and as building confidence for further deals. That goal has not changed, despite the heating up of collisions in each other's backyards.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.