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Reagan, Gorbachev settle into d'etente by default

If you can take your eyes away from the turmoil in Washington, you can notice that something else has been happening on the world scene that is interesting and perhaps a good deal more important than whether Vice-Adm. John Poindexter and Col. Oliver North can be persuaded to come out from behind the shelter of the Fifth Amendment. It is the observable fact that there is an absence of action in Soviet-American relations. Neither of the superpowers is doing anything newly aggressive to the other. They continue to do some of the old things that have been going on for months, or years, but nothing new.

Neither the US nor the Soviet Union is practicing any forward or offensive or aggressive foreign policy. Neither is active on the propaganda front. The nearest thing during the past week to action was that Moscow's Mikhail Gorbachev told US presidential hopeful Gary Hart that President Reagan ought to do something about arms control.

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But for Moscow to try to appear more interested in arms control than Washington is routine. Any Soviet official is going to try to make that propaganda point at any opportunity.

The fact is that there now exists a kind of silent, tacit d'etente in Soviet-US relations. It has not been negotiated. There is no document to formalize it. No official of either government has identified it as such. There is no progress being made toward any new arms control agreement. Indeed, Washington has just unilaterally broken the limits of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) on the allowable numbers of nuclear weapons.

Yet there is an absence of tension in US-Soviet relations. And there is the absence of any important new initiative. If there is still a second cold war between the two, the manifestations of it are mild. Action consists almost exclusively of the US continuing to fund the Afghan guerrillas against the Soviet puppet government in Kabul, and the Soviets continuing to supply arms to the Nicaraguan government in Central America against the US-backed contra rebels.

But these two supply operations to clients of the other superpower continue to be carried out with some restraint. The US gives the Afghan guerrillas enough weapons to keep them in the field and to tie down some 10 or more Soviet divisions in Afghanistan, but not enough to be a major threat to the puppet regime there.

The Soviets have given the Nicaraguans enough weapons to make it possible for the Sandinista Army to hem the US-backed contras in their base camps in Honduras and keep them from being able to sortie in strength into Nicaragua itself. But the Soviets have refrained from giving Nicaragua the repeatedly requested fighter planes that would give the ruling Sandinistas offensive power outside of Nicaragua.

Obviously there is a tacit understanding between Washington and Moscow about these operations. Neither supply operation is sufficient to become a major new threat to the security of the other.

All of this sketches out a kind of world situation that is perhaps about as normal as can be achieved under present circumstances.

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There was plenty of violence going on in the world this week, but it was all incidental to unresolved local rivalries and resentments, frustrations and hostilities. There was racial rioting and suppression in Karachi, Pakistan, between unhappy Pathans and government forces. There was trouble in India between Sikhs and Hindus.

Palestinian students were demonstrating on the West Bank of the Jordan River over the killing of two of their fellows by Israeli soldiers the week before. In Lebanon fighting continued between Palestinians and the Shiite Muslim Amal militia. In Ireland, the outlawed Irish Republican Army blew up the front of a police station.

Also, there was an interesting change of command in Vietnam. Old-timers moved out to make way for a younger generation. It could mean a softer line coming up in Vietnamese foreign policy. For the moment, fighting continues on the fringes of Cambodia.

But between Moscow and Washington, there was an absence of action and tension.

Reasons are obvious. In Moscow, Soviet leader Gorbachev is working away at trying to revise the Soviet system to make it more productive. In Washington, President Reagan is preoccupied by his first serious internal political crisis. Mr. Gorbachev this week eased an old Brezhnev favorite out of his regional party post to make way for another modern leader. In Washington, Mr. Reagan was resisting efforts among his principal advisers to reorganize the White House staff. Both men had too much domestic work on their plates to be able to think much about the other superpower.

Perhaps this is about the best kind of d'etente that can be achieved. It is identified by action, or lack of action, not by words. It is unofficial and unstructured and unformalized. But it makes the world seem safer and more comfortable.

There is reason to think that matters may go on more or less like this through the remainder of Reagan's presidency.

Recasting the Soviet system is a major job. Mr. Gorbachev has been making some progress, but not much. There is tremendous inertia built into the Soviet system. He probably can not break the old patterns without breaking the party. But he himself is a creature of the party. The party is so entrenched that it may defy his efforts.

As for Mr. Reagan, he is deep in a struggle with his own Republican Party leaders over the organization of the White House staff. This has been the second week of concentrated pressure on him to let go of his chief of staff, Donald Regan, and replace him with someone the party leaders think can run a less accident-prone staff. Mr. Reagan was still resisting the pressure, but it will continue.

As far ahead as anyone can see, Mr. Gorbachev is going to be preoccupied with his domestic economic problem and Mr. Reagan with his staff problem and the accompaniment of the many investigations into the affair of American guns to Iran and Iranian money to the contras. There is no respite for either in sight, hence no reason for new foreign policy ventures that would disturb the present lull on the superpower stage.

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