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October 12, 1986|Raymond L. Garthoff | Raymond L. Garthoff, a retired U.S. diplomat now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is author of "Detente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan" (Brookings).

WASHINGTON — The Reykjavik meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secre tary Mikhail S. Gorbachev is a justified exception to the generally sound rule that summit meetings should be carefully prepared and have predictable results. In view of the suddenness of the decision, shortly before the meeting was to occur, and its evident ad hoc and interim nature, there is, fortunately, little public expectation of dramatic results. That being the case, however, the question arises: Was this trip really necessary?

To answer this question, we must begin with the real centerpiece of any summit meeting--the leaders themselves. The unique feature of a summit is the personal engagement and contact of the leaders, in this case Reagan and Gorbachev. There is also something to be said for meetings to permit face-to-face encounter and acquaintance between leaders--that was, of course, the main feature of their initial meeting in Geneva in November, 1985. Indeed, for an ad hoc summit, not a prepared "set piece," it is important that the leaders already be acquainted, to avoid unpredictable personal chemistry. But why should a preparatory meeting be needed when the two leaders agreed last year at Geneva to schedule two summit meetings in the United States and the Soviet Union in 1986 and 1987? And why in Iceland of all places? Why not meet in Washington if, and when, a meeting is justified? Why meet at all if it is not?

The nub of the matter is that

the diplomatic dialogue, and above all the arms negotiations, have not proceeded as well as envisaged at Geneva. The alternative to Reykjavik may not have been a delayed Washington summit, but none at all. Yet the leaders on both sides clearly want a summit meeting. Moreover, while not yet moving toward agreement on the main issues, some elements in the arms negotiation can be broken out for earlier accord, and--most important--perhaps even the main strategic-arms and space-weapons talks can be rescued. In short, while the arms negotiations do not yet justify a summit, they remain sufficiently promising that both sides have not given up hope of agreement, and by meeting now the leaders hope to stimulate those negotiations. That is the real purpose of the preparatory summit--notwithstanding the broader agenda Reagan will raise.

Reagan and Gorbachev are self-confident men, each with a belief that he is a good communicator, capable of making his position more clear and persuasive in person than in any other way. Moreover,

both are also strongly influenced by personal contact and experience. This is more of a change with respect to the Soviet leadership than the American, but Reagan is

more reliant on his own experience than any other recent President--disdaining the deep immersion in briefings and briefing books avidly sought by John F. Kennedy, the early Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Reagan's reliance on personal experience shows, for example, in his own frequent references to "understanding the communists" based on his own direct experience opposing them in the motion picture labor unions

of Hollywood in the 1940s. Neither Reagan nor Gorbachev is going to be "converted," or charmed, by the other. But they may both be right that they can better measure the possibilities, and lim

its, on cooperation and arms control through one-on-one discussion than in any other way, and on that basis can provide impetus and direction to the formal negotiations.

Summitry, and such variations as the innovation of a "base camp" pre-summit preparatory meeting of the leaders, are but part of a continuing multifaceted diplomatic dialogue--and one that occurs in the context of a broader and deeper continuing mix of cooperation and competition between the two rival superpowers. Each meeting of leaders is unique in its possibilities and its pitfalls. There are risks in Reykjavik, but not great ones, and the possible gains seem to outweigh them.

For Reagan, Reykjavik is not only a chance to influence Gorbachev and take a personal sounding on the terms of a possible agreement, but a way to reassure the American public on the eve of midterm elections both that his Republican Administration can deal prudently with the Soviets, and that it seeks arms reductions and improved relations. Should the effort later fail, that will become clear only long after the elections (and can always be attributed to Soviet intransigence).

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