The president of a prestigious New England educational institution, who also happens to be a long-time observer of U.S.-Soviet affairs, worried the other day that President Reagan may be "too anxious" for a summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
His point was that Reagan, his presidency in trouble because of the Iran- contra affair, might be tempted to accept a flawed arms-control deal--or one whose full implications have not been thought through--in order to bring off a Gorbachev visit to the United States.
The Administration dismisses such speculation. As one official said Thursday, "The President has made it clear that he'd like to have a treaty, and he would like to have a summit this year. But he's perfectly capable of walking away from it if he can't get the right arrangement."
The Soviets, however, are plainly trying to use the prospect of a summit meeting to squeeze concessions on arms reduction out of Washington. And with Reagan's mouth watering for a solid accomplishment during the final months of his troubled presidency, you have to wonder whether he is really immune to temptation.
It is self-evident that a summit meeting should be a means to an end--to put the final touches onto agreements for significant, verifiable arms reductions, for example--rather than an end in itself. In real life, however, things don't work out that way. There are too many people, here and abroad, who are so nervous about U.S.-Soviet tensions that they demand periodic summit meetings as reassuring proof that the two great powers are not on the verge of blowing up the world.
The sensible answer would be annual summit meetings, held without regard to whether the political weather is fair or foul. But neither side has been willing to take such suggestions seriously. U.S. Presidents look on well-timed summits as plums that pay dividends in terms of domestic politics. And the Soviets, not being stupid, treat summits as bait to be dangled before salivating American leaders.
During his first four years in office, Reagan showed little discernible interest in summits or arms control.
The President, though, seemingly became sensitive to Democratic taunts that he was on the way to becoming the first President in 35 years who failed to meet one-on-one with his Soviet counterpart, and that he was deliberately sabotaging the arms-control process.
In any event Reagan has talked less about the "evil empire" during his second term, and has become visibly more interested in summit meetings and arms-control negotiations. In fact, the pattern has been for Washington to talk about the desirability of summits while Moscow has at tempted to treat such meetings as a prize to be awarded for U.S. acceptance of Soviet arms-control demands.
The saving grace is that Gorbachev has seemed to have reasons of his own--including a desire to head off an unconstrained arms race in "Star Wars" and other high-technology weapons--to consider meetings with Reagan desirable. Twice now the Soviet leader, in the end, has been willing to drop the posturing and meet with Reagan without any important preconditions.
The first Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting, at Geneva, was long on atmospherics but not much on substance beyond an agreement to meet again. The second meeting, held at Reykjavik last October, proved just how dangerous it can be for a President to wing it at an ill-prepared summit.
Reagan agreed to the Reykjavik summit on a few days' notice; the general expectation was that the meeting would be an informal preliminary event to a Gorbachev summit visit to Washington.
The two leaders, however, plunged deeply into substance. They agreed in principle to a 50% cut in strategic offensive nuclear forces and the removal from Europe of medium-range missiles. To the shock and dismay of the European allies and our own Pentagon when they heard about it, Reagan went on to propose the elimination of all ballistic missiles over time, and Gorbachev trumped him by proposing that all strategic nuclear weapons be tossed into the garbage bin by 1996.
As it turned out, the preliminary agreements fell apart because of the dispute over Star Wars. But European leaders, who look on the U.S. nuclear deterrent as vital to their security, have not forgotten that an American President was so cavalierly prepared to turn a 30-year-old strategic doctrine on its head.
The Europeans were further irritated by revelations that Reagan had been pursuing an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran at the very time that he was lecturing allied governments against compromising with terrorism.
The lingering European resentment and distrust have complicated U.S.-Soviet efforts to finalize negotiations on the removal of medium-range missiles from Europe. But the Soviets have said both publicly and privately that they want to pursue arms control now instead of waiting for Reagan's successor.