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Aiming at the Barriers

December 10, 1987

For 70 years Soviet leaders have come from the same mold, part revolutionary and part provincial, that prevented their being taken seriously in the West except as warlords. Three days into the Washington summit, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev has succeeded in talking his way across the line into legitimate world stature.

That alone is cause to ponder what is happening in the capital. That President Reagan, with his sure sense of theater and of the benefits of center stage, helped Gorbachev get there is a sign that something basic has changed. For example, two dinners of state added immensely to the mix of summit hope and hoopla, but if you've seen one state dinner you've seen them all. What you have not seen is a Soviet general stroll into the War Room at the Pentagon, as Gen. Sergei F. Akhromeyev, deputy minister of defense and chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces, has been invited to do this morning. Since the planning for the summit meeting began, the strongest advocates of arms control have been the most anxious worriers about its leading to unwarranted euphoria. What they see now, though, is not exactly euphoria but is certainly relief concerning such events as Reagan and Gorbachev ending a two-hour discussion of Afghanistan and other issues on an optimistic note.

It would not take more than one bad day for the summit to sour, but by now the odds are against that. Reagan and Gorbachev have not been blurting out their conciliatory exchanges. They were carefully scripted in advance.

What the world seems to be watching is two unlikely partners agreeing explicitly or sensing implicitly that military power in a nuclear age no longer commands respect or necessarily advances the standing of superpowers among lesser powers.

The summit will end without agreements on avoiding an East-West crisis in the Persian Gulf.It is not likely that Gorbachev will fly home with a clearer understanding of what Americans mean by human rights. All of the nuclear weapons that were in place when the summit began will be there when it ends. Most of them are not even mentioned in the treaty that the two leaders signed, and the treaty itself is unratified.

This is not to say that nothing has happened or that nothing has changed since Monday. Seventy years of angry confrontation have created barriers to peace that will take time to tear down. Reagan and Gorbachev seem to be saying that if the work of clearing away the barriers is going to be that complicated, it should begin at once.

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