An East-West summit?
Two months ago the Economist (London) took another look at the state of East-West relations and concluded that while ''the tension as measured by officials in both Washington and Moscow is exceedingly high,'' the danger of conflict is ''remote.''
This relatively optimistic reading was written during the last week of March. It was based on the fact that there was not then any place in the world where Soviet and American armed forces or interests seemed in sight of a truly dangerous collision.
The Economist said, correctly, that the danger of conflict was ''much more distant than at the time of the Cuban missile or Berlin crises.''
The Berlin crisis involved the real possibility of Soviet and American soldiers shooting at each other.
The Cuban crisis involved the same.
There was a third moment in recent history which could have been as dangerous. That was in the 1973 Middle East war when the Soviets alerted a substantial airborne force and signaled Washington that it would use that force to rescue an entrapped Egyptian army unless Washington reined in its Israeli clients. Washington put its own forces on alert. For some 48 hours the air crackled with uncertainty and tension. Then the Israelis were reined in and the Egyptians allowed to supply their isolated units.
Since the Economist took comfort in the nonexistence of a situation which could involve both US and Soviet armed forces there has been another scare in the Middle East. The Syrians moved more troops into the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and engaged in maneuvers close to Israeli lines. Soviet troops were with the Syrians, manning anti-aircraft batteries. Had fighting broken out between Syrians and Israelis it is probable that some Soviets would have been hit.
What would the United States do if Syrian forces with Soviet units among them were to win a battle against Israel?
No one can be sure of the answer. That particular crisis passed. The Syrians concluded their maneuvers. Israel pulled back the extra troops it rushed in when the Syrians moved. We are all back now to the condition of late March when there was no single situation comparable to either the Berlin or Cuban crises.
Add that in spite of all the bristling rhetoric of the first two Reagan years neither Washington nor Moscow has yet violated the terms of the SALT II agreement.
Robert G. Kaiser, who was the Washington Post's correspondent in Moscow from 1971 to 1974, notes that the isolation which marked Soviet-US relations during the ''cold war'' has been replaced by many personal contacts which continue. Cultural and scientific groups visit back and forth. ''Hundreds of Russians and hundreds of Americans now know each other reasonably well.''
Robert Legvold, a Soviet specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, has surveyed the situation and concluded that we are not headed for an imminent confrontation. But most Kremlinologists are concerned about the tension which persists. One of the most eminent, Prof. Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University, has concluded that:
''It is time for Mr. Reagan to see a real live Russian in the flesh.''
Might it happen?
Averell Harriman was in Moscow last week. He was US ambassador there during World War II. He ranks as senior Western expert on the Soviet Union. He thinks, also, that a personal meeting between Messrs. Reagan and Andropov would be a good thing. He reports that Mr. Andropov would be willing.
That puts Moscow one up in apparent willingness at least to meet and talk, even if nothing came of it.
The danger, it seems to me, is that unless there is a reopening of a real diplomatic dialogue and unless the heads of government of the two most powerful countries on earth can meet and talk to each other - the tension will increase. An increase in tension would mean that the management of another crisis would be more difficult.
There is machinery still in existence, and use, for crisis management. As long as that machinery continues to exist and be used, there is always a chance that a new crisis could be managed at least as well as was the Cuban missile crisis.
Without the machinery - the danger would be greater.
The important thing, it seems to me, is to keep the machinery for crisis control in existence. A personal meeting between Messrs. Reagan and Andropov could do that, even if it accomplished nothing else. It would also relieve anxiety among the European allies.