BRUSSELS — For Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who likes to compare diplomacy to gardening because both take patient effort to produce results, the last 10 days must have been a nightmare.
From the Middle East to Moscow, Shultz practiced his patented brand of step-by-step diplomacy only to discover at the end of the exhausting trip that he had been moving in a circle.
First he conceded that about 2 1/2 years of delicate work to set up an international conference that would bring Israel and Jordan to the peace table had come to a dead end. In effect, Shultz said the Middle East peace process is back where it was in the spring of 1985, with Israel and its Arab neighbors far apart on principle and with no way in sight to reconcile their differences.
Then Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev shocked Shultz by declaring that he would not come to the United States for a long-planned summit with President Reagan unless Shultz could guarantee that there would be an agreement in principle on the knotty issue of space defenses.
By linking the summit to Soviet efforts to curtail the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars," missile defense program, Gorbachev pushed U.S.-Soviet diplomacy back to where it was after Reagan and Gorbachev met in October, 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland. The superpowers are tantalizingly close to a major arms control breakthrough but unable to follow through because neither side will compromise on space defenses.
Characteristically, Shultz said he is ready to go back to work on both issues. But it is far from clear what even heroic efforts can do for the time being.
"We didn't end in a sense of despair at all," Shultz told reporters aboard his aircraft on the flight from Moscow to Brussels where he briefed North Atlantic Treaty Organization foreign ministers on Saturday.
He said the intermediate nuclear forces negotiations have made so much progress that an agreement is assured unless the Soviets have decided to torpedo the talks at the last minute.
"At this point, the substantive reasons for not having it (an agreement) are disappearing and it is just a case of holding some things until you want to close," Shultz said.
The question now, of course, is whether the Soviets will ever want to complete the work if Washington sticks to its anti-missile defense plans. But even if Gorbachev was stalling for tactical reasons, a delay at this point could be fatal to the process.
U.S. officials noted that the Reykjavik deadlock over "Star Wars" stalled U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations for several months until Gorbachev signaled last spring that Moscow was ready to work on a treaty banning medium- and shorter-range nuclear missiles without linking progress to a space defense agreement.
With Reagan approaching the final year of his Administration, there is not much time left for gamesmanship.
Shultz said he has no plans to meet again in the near future with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze to try to restart the process. But U.S. officials say neither Shultz nor Shevardnadze will be willing to leave it at that for long.
"They want to go on--Shevardnadze is just like George Shultz," one U.S. official confided. "They both think the only way to accomplish something is to work at it."
Mideast Prospects Bleak
On the Middle East, things seem far more bleak.
For 2 1/2 years, the United States has been trying to bring Israel and Jordan together on plans for a Middle East peace conference that would serve as a backdrop for direct negotiations between the two countries, which technically have been at war since 1967.
The talk turned to such technical matters as Palestinian representation and the role of the Soviet Union at such a conference because the substantive issues like sovereignty over the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River were just too tough to tackle.
The idea was to talk first about procedure because it would be easier to reach agreement on technicalities than on the core issues. But, after talking to Israeli, Jordanian, Saudi Arabian and Egyptian leaders, Shultz decided that the procedural talk was going nowhere, so he suggested that the parties turn back to substance.
After Shultz left Jerusalem, Israeli officials began to float a suggestion that the United States and the Soviet Union might jointly sponsor a meeting to draw Israel and Jordan to the bargaining table. But U.S. officials say the idea is a non-starter.
When Shultz's Middle East and Moscow trip was first arranged, U.S. officials had hoped that a success in the Soviet Union would overshadow a lack of progress in the Middle East. But both halves of the trip turned sour, leaving Administration foreign policy in disarray.
For Shultz, persistance and a willingness to work can solve all problems. But, to quote another of his favorite sayings, "it remains to be seen" if determination and grit will be enough this time.