IN AN ADDRESS to graduates at Texas A & M University, President Bush outlined a conciliatory but cautious position toward the Soviet Union. Overall, he emphasized the importance of deeds and not mere words -- and of evolutionary, step-by-step changes toward more normal, less hostile, big-power relationships.
One area where more normal relationships can return useful dividends is trade between the two superpowers. Here Bush demonstrated in more specific terms his preference for step-by-step reciprocity.
If the Soviet Union liberalized its emigration laws and put the revisions into good-faith practice, conforming them to international standards, Bush said, then he in turn was prepared to work with Congress for "a temporary waiver" of a U.S. law that currently imposes heavy tariffs on Soviet exports to America.
Specifically, the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment to a 1974 trade law prohibits export credits and credit guarantee programs for the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc nations that restrict emigration.
Thus, Bush insists that the Soviets must take the initial step. Significantly, however, it is a step the Kremlin has already promised to take next month.
Even with this careful overture, Bush risks the wrath of those who oppose liberalized trade, whether out of fear of subsidizing the Soviet economy, creating a new international debt crisis or inviting more imports into the United States.
But the Bush announcement represents movement in the right direction and at about the right pace. While cautious, it still encourages greater openness between the two societies and more normal relationships in commerce, an area that we dominate.
U.S.-Soviet trade now is minuscule -- only about $3 billion last year, and much of that confined to agricultural sales.
If carried forward, the Bush initiative could eventually lead to extending to the Soviets so-called "most favored nation" status, which is less than it seems. Some 150 nations of the world already enjoy that same treatment under accords with Washington.
Bush should use the desire of the Soviets for increased trade with America to win not only more liberal emigration policies there -- an important matter of human rights -- but also Soviet concessions on fair trade.
In his speech, Bush emphasized that normal economic cooperation had been "injured" by Moscow's theft of technology from the West and from discrimination against U.S. corporations. The goal, as he said, should be trade and financial transactions taking place "on a normal commercial basis."
With the differences of systems and the history of hostility, that won't happen overnight. But it can evolve one step at a time, a concession from us in return for a concession from them. While the United States must remain wary and alert, our two nations need to build bridges along the track where our self-interests converge.
Trade defines one of those potential tracks of mutual benefit. If the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev is willing to open up its markets to American goods on a fair basis, Washington should encourage the pattern and reciprocate.