FOR prospects on the coming summit, the best United States informants would, of course, be people like Messrs. George Shultz, Robert McFarlane, Caspar Weinberger, and, obviously, President Reagan. But they are only giving out cautious and rather generalized public utterances. No one would expect them to do otherwise. This leaves us with what is regarded in this city as the best available source on the subject: Gen. Brent Scowcroft, once President Ford's chief foreign policy adviser and now a frequent consultant with top-level foreign affairs people in this administration.
He says that he is something of a ``skeptic'' about summits, ``especially when it comes to the Russians.'' He can't see the United States doing well at summits ``unless concrete things are achieved.'' When the main result of such a get-together is what he calls ``atmospherics,'' he thinks the Soviets always stand a better chance of winning -- or appearing to win.
``Atmospherics,'' he says, ``tend to play against us'' -- whereas ``one of the principal objectives of the Soviets at a summit is the atmospherics -- the rhetoric that surrounds the get-together.'' ``The Time interview,'' he adds, ``demonstrates that that, in fact, is the mode that they are in -- and with a fair amount of skill.''
General Scowcroft says the Soviets are positioned to benefit from the ``atmospherics,'' whether the climate surrounding the summit is ``good or bad.'' He puts the ``good'' scenario this way:
``If the atmospherics go well, then the President is under enormous pressure to fulfill the spirit of Geneva and to make concessions to keep the new spirit alive.''
``If, on the other hand, it goes poorly,'' he says, going on to assess the impact of sour, combative atmospherics at the summit, ``then it will be a contest to ascribe blame to it. And I think it is quite clear that the Soviets are laying the groundwork to make sure that the United States appears at fault, both with our European allies and with the US Congress.''
Was Scowcroft, then, seeing little hope for this summit? he was asked.
``I don't want to be too pessimistic,'' he said. ``There is some potential for achievement. There are real things conceivable in arms control. But it is not my impression that any of them are far enough along, either unilaterally or in formal contacts with the Soviets -- that there can, in fact, be a great deal of progress.''
But couldn't there be agreements on principle? Scowcroft was asked. ``Even agreements on principle at summits,'' he said, ``unless this group is very different, have to be fairly carefully prepared beforehand.''
``Well,'' he was asked, ``despite the President's insistence at his last press conference that the Strategic Defense Initiative -- `star wars' -- is not negotiable at the summit, there are foreign affairs observers who think it is. Do you think Mr. Reagan is implacable on this issue?''
``In my judgment,'' he replied, ``the President is very serious about it -- that he really means what he says and wants to hold open the possibility of transforming the nuclear age.''
``But aren't you opposed to the Strategic Defense Initiative?''
``I'm not wholly negative on SDI. I think we cannot put our head under the rug on strategic defense. I think that if you could wave a wand and end up with force postures on both sides that were very weak offensively and had very strong strategic defenses, that would be a very stable posture.''
Scowcroft said that when the Soviets' recent arms cutback offers were given careful scrutiny, it was clear the Russians were really offering little or nothing of substance.
``And,'' he added, ``they really don't need to go farther. Right now they tend to look like the good guys, advancing proposal after proposal. And even though those proposals aren't very good, it looks as if they are trying hard.
``If they can convey that impression to the Europeans and the Congress, they have accomplished what would be a very worthwhile objective at the summit for them.''
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.