MOSCOW — When Secretary of State James A. Baker III suggested to Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, that they hold their semiannual meeting not in Washington but in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Shevardnadze asked one of the "Americanologists" on his staff what Baker's intention was.
"Wyoming?" the puzzled Shevardnadze asked. "Why Wyoming? What's out there?"
"This is it--he's inviting you home," replied the adviser, who had worked in Washington. "This is the American way of saying, 'We're going to be friends.' Let's go to Wyoming."
Shevardnadze agreed to travel to Jackson Hole, which had long been one of Baker's favorite places. The two-day conference, preceded by a White House meeting with President Bush and three days of staff talks in Washington--and followed by a day of trout fishing--succeeded beyond the participants' expectations.
"I have been in U.S.-Soviet meetings for more than 30 years, and we have never had rapport like that," a senior U.S. diplomat said after the Wyoming talks. "To be sure, we have differences, serious differences on serious issues, but as we work to resolve them, there is a new spirit in the relationship."
A Soviet official, returning from the mid-September meeting, commented: "The next 6 to 12 months will tell for sure, but I think we have ended the Cold War. Trust has replaced suspicion, and that's key."
Although cautious because of the depth of the problems and the overall complexity of Soviet-American relations, many other U.S. and Soviet specialists also see this new spirit--and more--coming out of the far-reaching changes within the Soviet Union and in its foreign policy.
"We have begun to think in terms of possibilities, creative opportunities, the potential for real peace, and our agenda is no longer just a list of obstacles," a senior Washington-based U.S. official said on a visit to Moscow after the Jackson Hole meeting. "I would even say that we are challenging one another in ways that are starting to produce real breakthroughs on bilateral and international issues."
Both countries are looking toward this weekend's meeting between Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev as an exploration of this new relationship.
"They will talk, they will raise issues, they will reflect upon their own philosophies. They will see where problems lie and, we hope, they will try to give a political impetus to the resolution of those problems and further improvement in relations," Gennady I. Gerasimov, the Soviet Foreign Ministry's chief spokesman, said in Rome this week.
"Mostly, though, they will talk and lay the basis for what we believe will be much better relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, between East and West," he added.
More than a progressive warming appears to be under way in this relationship between Moscow and Washington.
Shevardnadze was almost rhapsodic as he described the Jackson Hole meeting and the agreements reached there to the Supreme Soviet, the national legislature.
"There is understanding by both that conditions are ripe for a major new step forward," Shevardnadze said. "Both the Soviet and American leaderships are guided by long-term prospects in the growing positive and constructive cooperation in bilateral relations and in the whole range of world problems.
"I must also point out that the Soviet-American dialogue has ascended to a new level of openness, businesslike attitudes, broadness of issues under discussion and degree of mutual understanding and good will," Shevardnadze said.
Before the Jackson Hole meeting, Shevardnadze and other Soviet officials were openly worried that the Bush Administration, which had announced a "strategic review," would slow or halt and perhaps even reverse the growing improvement that had come in relations between the two superpowers during the last years of the Reagan Administration.
"We greatly underestimated Ronald Reagan when he came to power," Leonid I. Dobrokhotov, a foreign-policy specialist at the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee headquarters, said in an interview. "He called us an 'evil empire,' and he wanted to launch 'Star Wars.' But then came his embrace with Mikhail Gorbachev in Red Square.
"Ronald Reagan turned out to be a historic figure. He reflected a revolution in the American national consciousness that matched a revolution in our national consciousness under Mikhail Gorbachev."
Even hard-bitten U.S. veterans of the Cold War are beginning to acknowledge the positive impact on Soviet-American relations of developments here and in Eastern Europe.
"These are people we can be friends with," a U.S. diplomat, who prides himself on his no-nonsense realism, said after the Jackson Hole meeting. "There is no objective reason for us to be at loggerheads if they follow through on what they say their policies are.