FEW experts believe that US-Soviet trade will take off much from current levels of $2 billion to $3 billion annually. Still, next week's Gorbachev-Reagan summit provides an important opportunity to repair - and strengthen - commercial links between the two superpowers. United States-Soviet economic ties have tended to vary over the years, from rather lukewarm (parts of the 1920s and '30s), to modestly hot (the era of ``d'etente'' in the 1970s), to downright chilly in recent years (after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979). The two sides would be better served by a more consistent pattern of commerce that was less dependent on the emotional or political equation of the moment.
Mr. Gorbachev would welcome an infusion of high-tech products and technology from the West, including the US. The Soviets have already opened the door to joint ventures, although, as of now, Western Europe has been more of a beneficiary than the US. The Soviets need access to modern management techniques and manufacturing processes. The Soviet Union may bill itself as one of the two global superpowers. But in terms of sophisticated manufacturing and industry, the Soviets are not really in that class - whose members include the Japanese and Americans, plus the Europeans.
Washington now maintains a considerable trade surplus with Moscow. That's not expected to change soon, because the Soviets have little to offer in terms of consumer goods. Both sides, nonetheless, should look for ways to increase commerce. The more links between the two superpowers there are, the better the long-range prospects for world peace. The US should rethink and modify laws barring the sale of low-technology goods (personal computers, for example), while maintaining some restraints on products with unique military applications. Laws linking trade to stepped-up emigration from the USSR would be harder to modify, given Washington's resistance.
Moscow needs to upgrade its old-fashioned accounting, marketing, and currency practices. China is in many ways ahead of the Soviets in this respect.
Stepped-up trade can be beneficial to both Moscow and Washington, provided such agreements are undertaken on a careful, case-by-case basis.