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Gorbachev's Summit Strategy Turns Coy

October 28, 1987|ROBERT E. HUNTER | Robert E. Hunter is the director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He recently visited the Soviet Union as part of a United Nations Assn. delegation.

It was a bad omen that Secretary of State George P. Shultz began his latest visit to Moscow in the same week in which, 175 years before, Napoleon Bonaparte began his retreat. Both had gone in optimism, forgetting lessons of history: Napoleon, the defeat of Sweden's King Charles XII by General Winter; Shultz, the Soviet about-face at the end of last year's summit.

No sooner had virtually all issues been resolved on a treaty to scrap the so-called Euromissiles than the Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, did the unexpected. He refused to set a date for signing and celebration in Washington. The reason? The same problem that denied President Reagan a triumph at Reykjavik: American devotion to the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars."

Only days before Shultz's trip, American visitors to Moscow received assurances from senior Soviet officials that all was on track. These Americans and Shultz's party were told that Soviet leaders are looking beyond the Euromissile treaty to a possible strategic-arms agreement next spring that would cut the superpowers' arsenals by 50%. The SDI issue would have to be resolved--but later, before a strategic-arms agreement was signed.

In retrospect, it should not have been surprising that Gorbachev declined to play the role written for him in Washington. In his brief period on the world stage, he has shown an uncanny ability to separate the important from the trivial. A treaty on Euromissiles will foster his goal of progressively decoupling, in European minds, the security of Western Europe from that of the United States. By Gorbachev's lights, a summit meeting would only add luster to Reagan's image in his twilight days.

In the next few weeks we will discover whether Gorbachev's gambit is only part of the final bargaining on the Euromissile treaty. In Moscow earlier this month it appeared that the gulf between the two governments on the future of Star Wars could be bridged. The United States has proposed to prohibit SDI deployments for seven years, provided that everything would be permitted afterward. The Soviets demand 10 years of rigorous adherence to the anti-ballistic-missile treaty, which bans Star Wars testing in space, after which the superpowers would confer on the next step. Alternatively, the Soviets have proposed a list of tests in space that would be outlawed--a list that the United States has rejected as a matter of principle.

Thus Gorbachev may simply be trying to put pressure on the United States, both directly and through the allies, in order to prepare a later compromise on SDI that comes as close to his position as possible. There is every indication that the Soviets want to deal on arms control with this President, a conservative Republican whose East-West policies have matured. This is better than facing a period of paralysis in U.S. foreign policy after next year's elections and perhaps a Democratic presidency that would be sniped at on U.S.-Soviet relations by Reagan and his ilk.

If this view is correct, Gorbachev might yet appear here in the next few months. The Kremlin already is dropping broad hints. Indeed, he does not hold all the cards. He may outshine Reagan in Western Europe in the contest for Man of Peace, and he finds a sympathetic audience there for his view of Star Wars. But to sustain his image Gorbachev must also show a certain consistency. He may have miscalculated.

As usual the American President will likely be blamed by the Europeans who become nervous at any detour in arms control. But Gorbachev's backing down on the summit meeting cannot help him overcome residual fears about Soviet duplicity. Furthermore, the Euromissile treaty is not particularly popular among most West European governments, so a snag in completing it will not be viewed as a permanent setback to the new detente.

It was most surprising, therefore, that Shultz quickly separated the signing of the Euromissile treaty from a Washington summit meeting. Years from now the world will remember the reduction of weapons, if that happens, rather than the media blitz attending a summit. But it is too late to say that the treaty is important and that the summit meeting is trivial. The Administration has made a point of arguing that there must be more to the improvement of U.S.-Soviet relations than arms control. A summit meeting might not be that something "more"; achievements on regional issues, human rights and the character and process of U.S.-Soviet relations will depend on substance, not symbols. But to permit Gorbachev to call the signals and to switch them at will won't do much for Detente II. And Shultz's acceding to Gorbachev's whims only underscores the key deficiency in the Euromissile treaty: the sense that it conveys in Europe of a lack of U.S. wisdom, leadership and steadfastness.

It is ironic that Reagan may lose both a summit and a strategic-arms treaty because of his fantasy that Star Wars "could make nuclear missiles practically obsolete." Beyond the need for modest levels of research to ensure against a Soviet breakthrough, a compelling case for SDI has yet to be made. It is a chip begging to be bargained away. By refusing to accept reasonable limits on SDI development, Reagan plays into Gorbachev's hands. That probably will continue unless the Administration changes its strategic vision and learns to seize the initiative from the Soviet leader.

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