IT can be welcome for some meetings between East-West leaders to be free of the deadly earnest weight of negotiation, of seeking psychological advantage and squeezing for every useful propaganda nuance. It is possible to overburden meetings with an import that they cannot reasonably bear. This risks wasting an opportunity to communicate on a simpler, more human level -- a person-to-person level that can itself be reassuring and do relations great good. We see a recognition of this in the Kremlin's reception of House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. and minority leader Rep. Robert H. Michel this week, and in the Reagan administration's effort to scale down expectations for the prospective meeting -- or meetings -- between Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan.
If Mr. Gorbachev wants a firsthand insight into how Americans think about relations with the Soviet Union, or anything else, for that matter, he can hardly do better than to talk for nearly four hours with a bipartisan foursome of congressional leaders. He will get an idea of the basic domestic values governing American foreign policy, a gut sense of where America is coming from, rather than a sophisticated rehearsal of policy alternatives.
Such a meeting is helpful too for the impressions the House delegation will bring back to their colleagues of the new Kremlin leader, who expectably could be in power into the next century. Initial impressions of Mr. Gorbachev are understandably running at a premium at the moment. The White House will want to know what lay behind Mr. O'Neill's appraisal: ``Was he hard? Was he tough? Yes, he is hard, he is tough.'' And it will want to hear the O'Neill entourage's impression of Gorbachev's reported remark: ``The world situation is disquieting, even dangerous, and a kind of ice age is being observed in relations between the USSR and the United States, at least it has been until recently.''
Gorbachev's repeated wafting of praise for the d'etente of the 1970s may be intended more for European than American ears. Still, his image of an ice age having settled on East-West relations rings too true for dismissal.
For its part, the Reagan administration is clearly feeling the pressure to meet with Gorbachev. It is now talking about a two-stage get-together. The first would be a personal ``meeting'' between the two leaders -- that is, something less than a working summit. If Gorbachev visits New York either for the September UN General Assembly session or for the United Nations' 40th anniversary in October, it would be impossible for the President to sit idly in Washington without a personal welcoming response. On that occasion, a communiqu'e could be released setting a time for a second meeting, probably in mid or late 1986. To put off a second meeting until 1987, or for two years, would look as though a real impasse had been reached on arms control.
At the same time, it would be wise for the administration to avoid locking itself into expectations for arms talks progress as a condition for a second summit. Even by mid-1986 might be an exceedingly short period of time to get something achieved on the arms front, given the great distance apart on both sides.
Inside the administration, a battle goes on over the desirability of pushing forward concrete positions for an arms accord. The impression in Washington now, however, is that Mr. Reagan himself, possibly thinking of his place in history, is eager to hold some kind of summit. Possibly he looks on it as a potentially crucial event in the historic American contest with the Soviets. He may hope that the justice of the American case and the force of his own argument could bring the United States out ahead in such a meeting. Or it may be keyed more to a sense of completeness for his eight-year term in office, wherein, particularly, hosting a Soviet leader's visit to the United States could itself prove a strong affirmation of American achievement and values. In other words, there may well be sets of purposes for a Gorbachev summit that argue for keeping the event -- or events -- from being held hostage to arms control progress, though the temptation may be great to do so.
Those in his own administration who fear that Mr. Reagan may give away the store in meeting with Mr. Gorbachev may be doing their own chief a misjustice. Expectations for a rapid thaw in relations or a quick arms control fix should be dampened. But presidential exposure is not some finite resource like a rare bottled gas. It is hard to see where any great harm came from Tip O'Neill's t^ete-`a-t^ete with Gorbachev. Why should any less good come of a meeting with Mr. Reagan?
If two or more meetings are needed to balance the dual goals of communication and negotiation, so be it.