WASHINGTON — Mikhail S. Gorbachev's baggage will be heavy with proposals for regional problems covering three continents. Although the ostensible purpose of Gorbachev's December visit is signing the treaty for removal of intermediate-range Soviet and American nuclear missiles from Europe, the Soviets have made clear that Gorbachev hopes to use most of his time at the Washington summit to confer on regional issues that have long bedeviled U.S.-Soviet relations. Gorbachev's list is known to include Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Central America and Cuba, plus Korea, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
This is a formidable agenda and, clearly, it cannot be explored fully during Gorbachev's planned three-day stay. There is, moreover, considerable U.S. reluctance to be drawn into formal discussions and negotiations; for one thing, U.S. diplomacy is not prepared, having inexplicably failed to do enough homework to cover this catalogue of Third World headaches.
Gorbachev, however, is determined to confront President Reagan with the full package in order to assume the diplomatic initiative. Given the growing internal pressures on him from his reform policies, Gorbachev knows he must return home with considerably more than the pre-negotiated missiles pact.
He wants to demonstrate that the Soviet Union is becoming a positive foreign policy force, with emphasis on peace-making and the creation of a relationship with the United States that would defuse superpower tensions, allowing the Soviets to concentrate on modernizing their economy--that is what perestroika is supposed to be all about.
In the process, the general secretary would like to be able to disengage from costly and pointless Soviet involvement in such places as Afghanistan, Cambodia and Nicaragua. For several months now, Soviet diplomats have been sending signals to that effect through a variety of channels.
For the Reagan Administration, the challenge is how to evaluate Gorbachev's global peace offensive--and how to respond. Deep distrust of Soviet motivations and intentions persists in Washington.
Some top U.S. officials believe that linkages should be established among some or all of the regional issues to test Gorbachev's credibility. If he comes up with a plausible plan to settle the eight-year-old Afghanistan War, for example, the Administration would be more inclined toward deeper conversations on the Middle East. and the Persian Gulf. But diplomatic strategy in response to Soviet initiatives has not yet been firmed and most U.S. thinking remains quite tentative.
At this stage, a breakthrough in Afghanistan seems the most promising. Observers generally agree that Moscow wants to end an expensive and obviously unwinnable war but it requires guarantees and face-saving devices before pulling out. For this reason, Gorbachev wants to deal with the United States--underlining again that most Third World conflicts must be settled by the superpowers--to assure conditions for Soviet withdrawal.
One basic condition would be that the Soviets could withdraw if the United States stopped supporting the anti-Soviet moujahedeen guerrillas inside Afghanistan with modern arms delivered through Pakistan.
The United States is ready, in principle, to consider such a solution, in part because Washington realizes that the profoundly divided Afghan guerrilla organizations are unable to dislodge the Soviets militarily.
The next Gorbachev step would be a timetable for gradual withdrawal of the 120,000 Soviet troops from Afghanistan. From informal remarks floated through diplomatic channels, the best guess is that an agreement may result in a Soviet departure within a year, most likely under the auspices of the United Nations. The United Nations could also provide a peace-keeping military presence to help prevent a blood bath against supporters of the present regime.
Finally, a formula must be devised to set up a new government acceptable both to the Soviet Union and the moujahedeen guerrillas--no easy task, but one the United Nations and neighboring Pakistan could help work out. Gorbachev has even hinted that Afghanistan's deposed king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, may be asked to return as the head of state.
Although the Reagan Administration cannot quite believe it, the Soviets insist that they are absolutely serious about a peace settlement in Central America along the lines proposed by Costa Rica President Oscar Arias Sanchez. In practice, this means that the Soviets have decided they would not sacrifice an improved long-term U.S. relationship for the sake of shoring up the regime in Nicaragua. There are strong indications that both Gorbachev and Cuba's Fidel Castro have successfully urged Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega to accept most of the Arias plan features--last week, for example, 985 political prisoners were released in Managua.