RONALD REAGAN went to the United Nations this week to outline his vision of the world, and it was a vision threaded with new hope and promise. He has just concluded with the Soviets an agreement to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. As some experts point out, only about 3 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal is covered. Yet the accord is important for its symbolism and for the prospect that it will lead to much larger cuts in longer-range nuclear weapons.
Some observers suggest that President Reagan has changed his mind about the Russians. If you listened carefully to his speech at the United Nations, it did not sound that way. He clearly abhors the many restrictions imposed on the freedom of Soviet citizens. He lashed out at Moscow for its continuing occupation of Afghanistan. There was not much doubt that he continues to see communism as a dismal and failing alternative to the free-market system.
He believes, as he made clear, that there are major differences between the two systems represented by the American and Soviet superpowers and that there always will be.
But he also made evident his conviction that both sides must make constructive efforts to solve some of those differences subject to solution. Agreeing to take measures that lessen the danger of our blowing each other up is the most dramatic and recent example.
Does all this represent a Reagan flip-flop on the Soviet Union? If that is what the archconservatives fear, they are misreading Reagan's mood. He remains critical of the Soviet system but ready as always to negotiate progress in those gray areas between the United States and the USSR where accommodations might be made that favor both sides.
While governor of California and as President, Mr. Reagan has often taken a tough initial negotiating position but turned out to be a pragmatist and a man of some compromise when the time came to cut a deal.
His toughness has paid off in his negotiations with the Soviets. At the beginning of his presidency, Reagan believed the US defense machine was run down. In the face of massive political criticism, he held firm to major spending to improve the size and readiness of US defenses. He has also held firm to his concept of a Strategic Defense Initiative, derisively dubbed ``star wars'' by his critics.
Initially, the Soviets walked away from arms control negotiations, perhaps believing they could force the President's hand. They failed. Ultimately they were obliged to return to negotiate.
There are some other new factors in the mix, not the least of which is new and more flexible leadership in Moscow. Like Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev is a hard-nosed leader who takes a hard-line negotiating position. But like Reagan, Mr. Gorbachev has a political flair for compromise when the conditions are right. The timing for compromise has proved propitious for both sides. Reagan needs a triumph to deflect criticism of his ill-starred Iranian arms venture, and to cap his presidency with a constructive chapter. Gorbachev desperately needs breathing space from the arms race to overhaul his country's decrepit economy.
Thus there has been a new air of civility to the negotiations, particularly those conducted at the foreign-minister level between US Secretary of State George Shultz and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. That atmosphere contrasts strikingly with the frostiness that overlay many meetings between former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and a succession of US secretaries of state.
But though there may be a new civility and a genuine desire to make progress in areas where both sides can benefit, it would be a mistake to assume Reagan has abandoned his suspicion of communism.