When we approach a Soviet-American summit meeting, we feel a strong desire to lower our expectations and caution ourselves that the relationship will continue to remain difficult even after the leaders have met.
Clearly, we should not fall into euphoria this time. But as President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev prepare for their third encounter, it is possible that we are lowering our expectations excessively.
For the first time, the needs of Soviet and American domestic politics and foreign policy now fit together in a way that permits serious agreement.
The two countries now have leaders who are capable of making almost any imaginable arms-control agreement. Despite all the talk about conservative domestic opposition to Gorbachev, he has had the most rapid consolidation of power in Soviet history. The removal of Boris Yeltsin was a victory, not a defeat, and Gorbachev is as strong politically as was Josef Stalin in 1928-29, on the eve of his industrialization-collectivization drive.
Reagan, too, is often said to be weakened. But his power to affect Soviet-American relations is very different from his ability to gain confirmation of Supreme Court nominees. The President should be able to get any arms-control agreement ratified. Since he does not have to worry about any future election, he is quite free to do whatever he thinks best to cap his presidency.
Both leaders also have a vital interest in the reduction of spending on conventional military forces in Europe, for this is the most expensive part of the defense budget. Gorbachev needs both to divert money to the domestic economy and to reassure Western Europe that investment in the Soviet Union is safe. The President needs to reduce the deficit, and the choice is between a tax increase or cutting conventional military spending. It is in neither side's interest to fight a war in Europe, so the huge land armies there are an enormous luxury to both nations.
Finally, Gorbachev no longer ties a strategic-arms treaty to former limits on the Strategic Defense Initiative, but is insisting only on the traditional interpretation of the anti-ballistic-missile treaty and its prolongation into the mid-1990s. Such a deal is very attractive to the President, for Democrats like Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia would pledge support for a vigorous SDI research program in exchange for his acceptance of the ABM treaty. It is the President's best chance to guarantee that SDI research will not be whittled down in coming years.
Gorbachev, too, would be happy with such an outcome. Since a successful SDI would leave the Soviet Union defenseless, it is the perfect symbol of the danger of technological backwardness. Thus it is such a powerful argument for reform that Gorbachev cannot afford to lose the issue. As long as Americans are loudly proclaiming their commitment to SDI research, Gorbachev has his long-term bogeyman to spur domestic reform. Indeed, from his point of view, the more vocal support Americans whip up for SDI research is preferable to carrying out the program on a somewhat smaller, and quieter, basis.
Of course, even if major arms-control agreements are reached, many issues remain between the two countries. They should not, however, be exaggerated. What has been threatening about the Soviet Union has not so much been its specific actions but its unbelievable secretiveness and its intense hostility toward Western culture.
The essence of the Lenin and Stalin revolution was a rejection of Western civilization, which was treated simply as the "superstructure" of alien slave-holding, feudal and business classes. This rejection extended to foreign food, and even today Moscow does not contain a single French or Italian restaurant.
This xenophobia actually led less to expansionism than to an isolationist Iron Curtain. Westerners, though, feared that the deep xenophobia rested on such a pathological paranoia that the Soviet leaders might do something truly dangerous.
Now, in talking incessantly about Europe and about Russia as part of European civilization (a whole chapter is devoted to the subject in his new book, "Perestroika"), Gorbachev is saying that much of Western civilization is good. The essence of glasnost is greater openness to Western ideas and culture, and the important part of the intermediate-range nuclear-force treaty is its acceptance of on-site inspection inside the Soviet Union.
Raisa Gorbachev raises tension in Russia precisely because she is a symbol of her husband's modernity. But a Russia that is open to Western civilization will seem far less threatening to Westerners. We need to give very serious thought to how to deal with it, and how to benefit from the changes that are occurring.