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A Reagan-Andropov summit?

January 7, 1983



Do we detect a change of tone in the high reaches of the US government? It may be premature to say so, but President Reagan's rather tough and frequent rhetorical barbs at Moscow seem to be giving way to a softer, more conciliatory stance. Not a weak stance, let it be quickly said, but one that keeps open the door to bringing about an improvement in the strained Soviet-American relationship. The change is welcome.

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Thus, in his press conference this week, Mr. Reagan did not summarily dismiss the Warsaw Pact's proposal for a nonaggression pact with NATO, whatever the propaganda purpose of the proposal. He simply said the idea had to be ''considered'' and discussed with the allies. He also commented that he would ''welcome a summit'' with new Soviet leader Yuri Andropov provided such a meeting were well planned. And he deftly skirted a query about a possible KGB connection with the attempted assassination of the Pope.

This evidences a maturing of style. Mr. Reagan perhaps is being persuaded by his foreign policy lieutenants that more is to be gained by a public attitude of reasonableness than anti-Soviet hectoring - and that this need not mean altering one's substantive position. How much better to couch things in a way that gives the public hope that conflicts can be worked out than in a way making it appear that they cannot be worked out at all.

Mr. Reagan's qualified but positive response regarding a summit meeting is especially encouraging. The oft-heard arguments about not holding high-level meetings unless some document can be signed, some pact sealed, are well known. Indeed the arguments are valid if the superpower leaders are meeting for a one-shot affair. For then misunderstandings can easily arise and failure result if the ground for agreements has not been carefully laid in advance. Who does not remember John Kennedy's disastrous meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961?

Yet it seems odd that in this age of instant communication - and with global problems growing increasingly complex and dangerous - the leaders of the two most powerful countries in the world make no effort to get to know each other. The Western leaders are doing better in this respect, but even their summit meetings tend to turn into razzle-dazzle PR affairs, with bands blaring, TV cameras rolling, and hundreds of reporters trailing.

The unrealistic expectations that now surround summit conferences would disappear if they became a more frequent event. The problem, especially with Soviet-American summits, is that there aren't enough of them. If they became more routine, if the US and Soviet leaders met, say, once a year - at the United Nations perhaps - it would not always be mandatory to produce ''concrete results.'' Then the summits would serve the meaningful purpose of educating the leaders, of forcing them to clarify their own positions and to make these positions clear to each other. When men know each other personally, there is less chance of misunderstanding and mis-calculation. This is particularly so in the case of the Soviet leadership, which has so little knowledge of the outside world.

It is not necessary to have a grandiose Congress of Vienna every time the American and Soviet leaders meet. With a new man in the Kremlin, now is an opportune time to consider an early get-acquainted summit - not to crown a START treaty but to let Mr. Andro-pov and Mr. Reagan take each other's measure in a fairly informal, businesslike setting. This could be followed by periodic meetings in the future. And, who knows, understandings on arms control and other difficult issues might be reached sooner than anyone now thinks possible.