THE Reagan administration is misunderstanding the Soviet Union again. Treasury Secretary James Baker says the United States will oppose Soviet membership in the International Monetary Fund - and the Soviets haven't even applied. So what's the fuss about if Mr. Baker wants to beat a dead horse?
The fuss is that although the Soviets have not applied, they have talked about it. Instead of telling them not to bother, Baker ought to be encouraging them.
It is in our interest to involve the Soviet Union as much as possible in the world's financial system. To participate, the Soviets would have to modify some of their state trading practices. They would acquire more of a stake in the world.
One would expect this to lead over time to more-moderate behavior on their part in respect to international affairs.
Mikhail Gorbachev has indicated he wants to shake up the Soviet economy, which has not been performing very well. It can be argued that this would be bad for the US: A stronger Soviet economy would make for a stronger (and therfore more threatening) Soviet Union. A better argument is that Mr. Gorbachev ought to be encouraged, that a stronger Soviet economy would inevitably mean more Soviet ties to the West and a greater degree of Soviet integration in the world economy. This, in turn, would sooner or later modify the way the Soviets look at the world.
This is what has been going on in China, which with US support is a member of the fund and the bank. If this is in our interests in China, why is it not in our interests in the Soviet Union?
There is another reason to encourage Soviet participation in the bank and the fund, or at the very least not gratuitously to oppose it. Membership would be a small indication to the Soviets that they are accepted as equals in the world community. Opposition to membership is another large indication that they are not. Signs of international acceptance are more important to the Soviets than many people, especially in the Reagan administration, seem to realize.
Russians perhaps have no more pride than most people, but they are obsessed with the notion that they have not received the international respect they deserve. It can be argued that in view of their behavior they don't deserve very much; their performance on the world stage has been troublesome, to put it mildly. But they have achieved the status of superpower, and they are infuriated that the other superpower treats them as a pariah instead of an equal.
Given this attitude, symbols become as important as substance.
It may be that Soviet membership in the IMF would involve the USSR more intimately in the world economy and that it would not lead to any significant improvement in Soviet behavior. It may be that the Soviets would assume the role of troublemakers, as Secretary Baker apparently fears, or even that they would seek to borrow money from the fund or from the World Bank. That matter could be judged on its merits when and if it arose, though as a general proposition it could be argued that putting the Soviets in hock to the capitalist World Bank would be more subversive to the USSR than to the bank. It may be that Soviet membership would not make much substantive difference one way or the other. But to the extent it would make a difference, that difference would be more likely to be good than bad.
It is all the more regrettable, therefore, that Baker has rebuffed the Soviets when they have not even knocked on the door.
The secretary possibly felt his hand was forced by Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, who wrote urging such a position. But surely the secretary knows how to stall a member of Congress, even one getting ready to run for president.
This incident by itself will probably not deserve much more than a footnote when the history of the Reagan administration is written.
But in a larger context, it is another example of the administration's striking insensitivity and inability to comprehend how other people see things. The administration has demonstrated this with respect to US blacks, among others, as well as Russian communists.
To paraphrase the President himself on another occasion, ``There they go again.''
Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.