WHAT is there about Mikhail S. Gorbachev that has made him an instant favorite of the American media? Has he proceeded with new meaningful initiatives, opening the door for rapprochement with the United States? Has he begun dismantling some of the most petty Soviet domestic-control mechanisms? Or has he managed, with a broad smile, firm handshake, and quick wit, to mesmerize quite a few commentators without yielding an iota of his neo-Stalinst regime's practices? ``The obsession with style over substance among some observers is ludicrous,'' writes Richard Nixon in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Indeed, the new Soviet leader has made major headway in the public relations battle with President Ronald Reagan, almost exclusively because he proved to be good copy. But Gorbachev's words and deeds should be assessed not on the basis of his performing talent, but through the prism of US interests and values. If this prism is used, the enthusiasm over the gene ral secretary's conduct appears to be premature.
His arms control pronouncements are more in the mode of outmaneuvering the Reagan administration in the propaganda war than seriously negotiating with it. Gorbachev was told in advance by Washington that his nuclear testing moratorium was a nonstarter. But he announced it anyway to score a point. The Soviet leader was well aware that the United States was opposed to an international conference devoted to outlawing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). That did not deter Moscow from calling for precise ly such an event.
Gorbachev did assure Time magazine editors that Moscow was prepared to accept the inevitability of SDI-associated ``research in fundamental science.'' This is encouraging. Except, it is hardly a major step forward since that much was promised by Andrei Gromyko during his January 1985 meeting with George Shultz. The understanding was part of a package that made the resumption of the arms control talks possible.
The general secretary also indicated to a delegation of US senators that if the United States abandoned the SDI, the Soviet Union would be ready to offer major reductions in strategic offensive forces. Why not in reverse order: The Kremlin explains what specific reductions it has in mind and the US decides whether they go far enough to put SDI on the shelf.
As far as Gorbachev's much-praised candor goes, consider this passage from the Time magazine interview: ``My colleagues and I are quite exacting and self-critical when it comes to our own activities, not only in this country but also outside of it, and we are asking ourselves again and again if [the decline in relations] is somehow connected with our actions. But what is there that we can reproach ourselves for in this context?'' Gorbachev's reply to the rhetorical question is unambiguous -- nothing at all. The fault lies entirely with the other side.
If this is candor, what is self-righteous blindness? Unfortunately, Time magazine editors didn't ask Gorbachev whether he thought the Soviet war on the Afghan people, and in particular, the growing pressure on Pakistan to abandon support for the rebels, would be of no relevance to America. Nor was the general secretary pressed to explain how the Soviet campaign against the US encouraged the King Hussein/Yasser Arafat initiative to give the search for peace in the Mideast another try. Gorbachev claimed t hat Moscow ``is not resorting to anti-American campaigns.'' Should one assume that he is unaware that the Soviet media regularly accuses America of ``state terrorism'' and portrays it as an evil and decadent empire?
It is also too bad that Time editors didn't press Gorbachev on his human rights record. It would be interesting to know how the new image he is trying to project is consistent with a further tightening of the screws on Jewish emigration. In July only 11 people were allowed to leave for Israel. And what about the continuing silence from Andrei Sakharov?
The US media approaches the Gorbachev political offensive as if he and the US President were two cowboys shooting at each other for the benefit of excited spectators. But we are not spectators. It is America -- not just Mr. Reagan -- that Gorbachev is attempting to put on the run.
But the real danger is not just in being euphoric about Gorbachev. Equally, if not more threatening, is the prospect that the general secretary, who has had little exposure to the United States, will assume that playing up to the Western media will be enough to cut Reagan down to size. Such a conclusion in the Kremlin would assure the summit's failure and may spoil the superpower relationship until the end of his term.
Americans are excited with Gorbachev's charismatic style. Still, the excitement thus far has not translated into any trust of his intentions. Ronald Reagan continues to enjoy tremendous popularity. Despite skirmishes with Congress, he comes to the summit in a strong position. Like it or not -- if Mr. Gorbachev wants to conduct serious business with the United States he has to accept the need to find common ground with the US President. Dancing around him will not do.
Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.