Are Russians human?
Lord Carrington, Britain's former foreign secretary who resigned during the Falklands war last year (for not having prevented it), made a speech in London last week which seems to me to be worth special notice.
He said in it that the West makes a mistake in ''dehumanizing'' relations with the Soviet Union. He said this practice ''would be the quickest road to catastrophe.'' And he went on to make clear what he is talking about by saying further:
''The notion that we should face the Russians down in a silent war of nerves, broken only by megaphone diplomacy, is based on a misconception of our own values, of Soviet behavior and of the anxieties of our own people.''
This is precislely what the Reagan administration's posture toward the Soviet Union looks like to many of the most thoughtful and influential foreign-policy experts in the allied countries of Western Europe.
Lord Carrington would not have accused Washington of practicing ''megaphone diplomacy'' when in office. But out of office he can say in overt terms what many of his colleagues in the British government and in other allied governments in Europe say among themselves in private. It should be added that while out of office he continues to be an unofficial foreign-policy adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The speech, delivered in London on April 21, was not just the thinking of an ordinary private citizen at an ordinary occasion. The occasion was the annual Alistair Buchan lecture to a selected audience of leading foreign-policy thinkers invited for the occasion by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The institute is a central think tank and clearinghouse in strategic matters for the members of the NATO alliance and their friends.
The effect of the speech was a warning to Washington that the NATO allies in Europe do not see the Soviet Union in the same light as Washington, do not believe in an attitude and posture of confrontation, do not consider it either necessary or desirable to avoid negotations, and, above all, will not go along with the present attitude toward Moscow.
At the root of the difference is the point of ''de-humanization.''
Are the Soviets ''evil''? Is their system the ''focus of evil in the modern world''? Are they outlaws?
To see them in terms of the rhetoric President Reagan has used in many a public reference to them leads logically to an arms race, to confrontation, to avoidance of negotiation, and would some day, in logic, point toward war.
To Lord Carrington the Soviet Union is another great power, the second greatest in the present world, second only to the United States. The Western alliance outweighs the Soviet Union in power and range of influence. It is economically healthier and overall stronger in weapons.
He finds it ''extraordinary and against the dictates of common sense and of the evidence of our own eyes, for anyone to claim that the West, in military terms, is in any danger of sinking to its knees.''
He thinks that the Soviet Union is already ''a decaying Byzantium,'' although ''this decay will take place over decades rather than months or years.''
His conclusion is that the US should go to the conference table with the Soviets on weapons or on any other subject of possible mutual interest. He wants a general dialogue with them. He wants in particular talks about weapons at Geneva, such talks to be conducted ''in an atmosphere of calm confidence,'' not ''hagridden by fear of military inferiority.''
Like many other West European diplomats Lord Carrington thinks that it pays to negotiate with the Soviets, that they are human, and mortal, have their problems and their anxieties and their needs - some of which can be eased or helped by agreements with the West conducted with care for mutual interests.
President Reagan is scheduled to make a foreign policy speech tomorrow night with emphasis on alleged Soviet involvement in Central America. His proposed remedy is more guns for the government in El Salvador and for the counterrevolutionaries in Nicaragua. The European allies are watching. They think that there might be a better way. One such way, clearly in Lord Carrington's mind, would be a continuing dialogue with Moscow.
Just conceivably, if constant negotations were under way, it might be possible to reach an arrangement under which they would unobtrusively withdraw their aid to the left in Central America in return for something equally important to them. But to do that one must first assume they are human.