MIKHAIL GORBACHEV's visit to the United States next week comes at a time of considerably improved US-Soviet relations and amid high hopes on both sides that the trend can continue. Genuine friendliness between the superpower adversaries may not be in sight. But the two powers should seek to cooperate wherever potential mutual gains can be found.
The obvious starting point is arms control. The expected signing of a treaty banning medium- and short-range missiles is important largely for the potential it represents. Neither leader, correctly, is touting the accord as the start of a new era in US-Soviet relations. The Nixon administration's overselling of the significance of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty in 1972 triggered a public backlash. That treaty and its successor left legal room for a substantial military buildup. That factor, plus Moscow's expansive interpretation of ``peaceful coexistence'' in the 1970s as a license to expand Moscow's influence in the third world, was enough to give d'etente a bad name.
Much of the talk at this third Reagan-Gorbachev summit will center on the interests of both sides in cutting strategic missile warhead levels by half. Mr. Gorbachev says Moscow would now be satisfied if Washington held to the strict interpretation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, limiting President Reagan's planned strategic defense system to research and some testing. The recent agreement between the White House and Congress to hold to that narrow interpretation at least during the next budget year should advance prospects for a broader agreement on long-range missiles.
Soviet improvement on human rights is also high on the US agenda. The release of 7,600 Soviet Jews so far this year is more than eight times the total allowed to leave last year. But neither figure comes close to the 51,000 allowed to leave in 1979 and the estimated 400,000 said to want to leave.
Progress continues on regional issues. Moscow wants to get its troops out of Afghanistan and has gradually shortened the timetable by which it is offering to withdraw. But the neutral government the Soviets would settle for will be hard to get. There isn't much middle ground between the Islamic resistance and pro-Soviet elements now in power.
Just as the United States frets about the trouble the Sandinistas have stirred up in the Western Hemisphere, so the Soviets worry about the impact of a nationalistic Islamic border state on fundamentalist sentiment among Muslims inside Soviet territory.
Both Moscow and Washington want to make sure that Iran does not emerge victorious from its long war with Iraq. Both supported the UN resolution urging a cease-fire. The US would like Moscow's support in a follow-up arms embargo resolution. The US, however, is reluctant to enter any global effort, be it a peacekeeping force in the Gulf or a peace conference in the Middle East, in which the Soviets might gain added stature. It was, after all, Moscow's acceptance of Kuwait's bid for help in the Gulf which prompted the US to accept a similar offer to counter Soviet influence. Moscow has taken quiet advantage of the confrontational US approach by improving ties with Gulf Arab states and by striking new economic agreements with Iran.
Both the Soviets and the US would like to expand their influence in the third world. Here they conflict. But Soviet adventurism in developing nations is no longer prominent on Moscow's agenda, as it was in the Brezhnev era. Gorbachev now talks in high-sounding phrases of each nation's right to choose its own government and destiny. If followed in action, it is a point worth making. The US, which often views itself as a missionary for democracy, can afford to listen.
The Reagan administration would like to solve most world problems without Soviet cooperation. It is not at all clear that this can be done.