IT is disappointingly difficult to make a case that relations between Washington and Moscow have gotten one iota better since the Gorbachev-Reagan summit four months ago. The main impression today is of drift -- with neither side in any great hurry to make concessions of substance to reduce the stakes of armed confrontation. The more minor earnests of improved intentions -- new consulates in Kiev and New York, ``people to people'' exchanges, a meeting on southern Africa as a third-world flashpoint this month, release of Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, medical travel for Yelena Bonner, and start of talks on chemical weapons proliferation -- are not to be dismissed.
Yet they are heavily offset by other events: the stalling of the NATO-Warsaw Pact troop reduction talks last week; the firing of a United States nuclear device in Nevada last Saturday, even as Moscow had been trying to enlist Washington in an extended test moratorium; and the prospect of resumed Geneva negotiations on nuclear weapons May 8 with the two sides no nearer a new agreement and with the US still uncertain over holding to the nuclear submarine limits of the unratified 1979 SALT II strategic arms treaty.
Add to this Moscow's reluctance to set a date for Mr. Gorbachev's promised visit to Washington this year, and the Reagan administration's continued rhetorical pounding on the theme of a Soviet threat in Nicaragua, and the ``nays'' seem to be having a better time of it than the ``yeas'' as far as superpower relations are concerned. One is hard put to see how Mr. Reagan can want to receive at the White House in person the head of a government and world political movement whose influence and presence he wants to expunge in Managua.
Then there are the provocations or assertions of international rights (depending on one's point of view) of US naval activities in the Black Sea off the Soviet shore, or in Gulf of Sidra waters, where a Soviet warship reportedly sits in a Libya harbor.
There are even deeper concerns about the basic policy assumptions of the two superpowers. For example, some analysts now argue that the Gorbachev Kremlin is less interested in fostering revolution in preindustrial countries like Nicaragua and Angola than in building links to the moderate countries like Egypt, Argentina, and Mexico.
Who is even attempting to rationalize these signals that are so disconcerting to even the most casual observer?