AN East African saying puts it neatly: When the elephants quit fighting, you can hear the smaller animals. When the superpowers stop butting tusks and start talking, a lot of lesser quarrels begin to edge off dead center. Peace is certainly not yet breaking out all over. But explorations are - involving Vietnam and Cambodia, Central America, Israeli-East European relations, Afghanistan, Mozambique, a Middle East international conference.
Furthermore, when the elephants stop fighting, they begin to get serious about lesser negotiations. Areas in which they had almost given up even the pretense of serious bargaining spring to life. There are signs, for instance, that American-European-Soviet negotiations on reduction of conventional forces and chemical weapons may be about to move out of a long period of neglect.
For the American-West European alliance, such bargaining may be more important than the next step in Moscow-Washington negotiations: major cuts in long-range nuclear missiles. More on that in a moment.
It's difficult to estimate how far the various regional peace initiatives may go. Some (Vietnam, Israel-Eastern Europe) have not even become public yet. Hanoi's new-generation leaders are quietly hinting they would like to begin withdrawing Vietnamese troops from Cambodia ahead of their announced 1990 schedule - if international observers can be found to help guarantee a stable (meaning pro-Hanoi) regime there. Southeast Asian neighbors worry that Vietnam might pull troops out of one part of the country, and quietly insert them elsewhere.
Israel, still bargaining tough with Moscow over full resumption of relations broken off because of the 1967 Israel-Arab war, is nearing some type of resumed relations with three Eastern European nations.
In Central America, the major Nicaraguan and Salvadorean opponents are very active, faced as they are with deadlines and intense public scrutiny. Even Cuban-American relations have warmed slightly as Mikhail Gorbachev, Havana's subsidizer, nears a first missile deal with Washington and almost daily makes clear that he wants to shrink subsidies of all kinds.
Mr. Gorbachev's cost-effectiveness campaign has not changed his bottom-line terms on Afghanistan - a regime friendly to Moscow. But long-running explorations under UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar are narrowing differences on less central issues.
Mozambique's President has been in New York and Washington, trying to make the best of the Soviet-American thaw to reinforce the Reagan administration's sometimes wavering support. He is endangered by guerrillas backed by, among others, United States Sens. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Robert Dole (R) of Kansas.
The US and Israeli foreign ministers are trying to advance their plan for an international conference to midwife Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But there are no signs of give on the part of Israel's prime minister.
As indicated earlier in this column, talks on conventional force reductions in Europe may be the sleeper in this whole catalogue of revived bargaining. Such reductions - of troops, tanks, helicopters, tank-killing weapons, etc. - could also be the most important of the lot in global strategic terms.
So far, the mutual and balanced force reduction (MBFR) talks in Vienna have been nothing but a dead backwater in the superpower chess game. No less an authority than a host to the talks - Austria's forthright Foreign Minister Alois Mock - sees MBFR as fading. But he also believes the subject is ripe for a comeback under a different guise, perhaps in Geneva.
There are two sources of momentum on this issue. First, Germany, France, and Britain may dig in their heels and say they will not back a US-Soviet deal on a 50 percent reduction of long-range missiles unless there is serious progress on conventional armies. NATO leaders don't wish to see the dismantling of their local shield against Soviet military superiority (short- and mid-range missiles) followed by reduction of the nonlocal nuclear deterrent (long-range missiles) without shrinkage of Soviet-bloc regular forces.
French officials reportedly have even gone so far as to consider moving some of their independent nuclear missiles into Germany as a bargaining counter. What makes any new negotiation on conventional forces both fascinating and difficult is the degree to which cuts would have to be ``asymmetrical.'' What the Europeans (and the US) want is heavier Soviet-bloc than Western reductions of manpower and weapons. When such bargaining gets serious, several apparently extraneous matters ought to be remembered:
1.The West does not need absolute parity of forces because of the uncertainty Moscow must live with regarding its Warsaw Pact partners. Five of the East-bloc bosses are in their 70s; turnover may lead to uneasiness - or instability. Eagerness of their armies has long been in question.
2.Moscow may be more willing to give ground on armed forces reduction because China has already unilaterally launched a 24 percent cut in its army. Moscow's large forces have always been a response to fear of a two-front struggle in Europe and the Far East.
3.Pressure in Congress to bring US troops home may rise again, for budget or isolationist reasons. That pressure would assist Kremlin bargainers.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.