For diplomats and others who are watching from a distance as President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev head for their meeting in Geneva this weekend, one little fact is perhaps of special importance. President Reagan is taking George Shultz with him as his principal adviser, and not Caspar Weinberger.
This means more than just that it is the secretary of state rather than the secretary of defense who is going.
George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger are longtime personal friends and former business associates. They are also much more than mere heads of their departments. They are the champions of opposing schools of thought about what sort of relations the United States should have with the Soviet Union.
Mr. Shultz reflects and advances the view that a tolerable coexistence between the two superpowers is possible. This view holds that there is no harm, and perhaps some good, in letting the top men meet and see if they can talk about the differences that cause friction and perhaps even find ways to reduce those differences or at least bring them within manageable bounds.
Mr. Weinberger reflects and advances the contrary view: that the Soviet government is evil and that US policies toward it should be shaped to weaken it in any and every possible way -- even to the point, if possible, of bringing it down. The hard-line foreign policy radicals for whom Mr. Weinberger is the champion argue that the Soviets will never sign any treaty or accept any agreement that does not give them an advantage. Hence they oppose even the idea of a meeting.
Symptomatic of the hard-liners' concerns was a report this past week from an anonymous ``senior Pentagon official'' that the Pentagon was preparing a new memorandum on alleged Soviet violations of existing arms control agreements. Weinberger was to present this report to Reagan before he took off for Geneva.
It is a standard argument of the hard-liners that the Soviets violate any agreement if it suits them to do so. So why, they ask, enter into agreements with them? The hard-liners don't want agreements. They do not like the idea of a summit. They are unhappy that Mr. Weinberger will not be in Geneva to try to keep the President from agreeing to anything. They represent a powerful segment of the President's political constituency.
The battle between the two factions, usually referred to as pragmatists vs. hard-liners, was waged almost to the end in presummit planning. The hard-liners were apparently ahead through Oct. 8. On that day, Robert C. McFarlane, the President's national security adviser, went on television expressing a hard-liner point of view on interpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
His remarks precipitated a decisive White House meeting on Oct. 11. Reports from backstage say that it was one of the hardest fought arguments since Ronald Reagan came to Washington. On Oct. 14, Mr. Shultz made a speech that seemed to show that the President had finally accepted the view that he should go to the summit to explore for possible future accommodations, not to wage ``cold war'' by diplomacy and propaganda.
At that point Mr. Reagan began doing homework on Russia. He called in experts, since there is no ``Kremlinologist'' on the White House staff who has made a life-time study of Russia and East-West relations. He talked on the telephone with Richard Nixon, and apparently absorbed the Nixon view that in human-rights cases more can be accomplished through quiet diplomacy than public exhortation. He saw a Russian movie, listened to briefings, asked for books, read some memos.
The idea of the summit meeting dates back to the 1984 political campaign. It seemed to be a good thing to do then, to counteract Democratic campaign propaganda which tried to cast Mr. Reagan in the role of warmonger. The Soviets were sounded out, but turned the idea down precisely because it was a political ploy.
However, after the campaign, the idea grew of its own momentum. The White House has tried to play down the summit, but its importance to the public has grown far beyond the desire or intent of Reagan's advisers. To some at the White House, the summit idea has become a monster, out of control. The whole world is watching. Public interest at home is immense. The question heard everywhere is: What is going to come out of this?
So now we arrive at the crucial moment. Mr. Reagan has noted that for the first time in some time the American will be the senior at the conference. But will he be equal in knowledge? His ``prep'' work on Russia has paid off. In his weekly radio speech last weekend he knew, and said so, that Russians and Americans were allies in World Wars I and II. He also said that the Russians were helpful to the US during the American Revolution. (My desk American history fails to record the episode.)
The era of Russia being an ``evil empire'' has been superseded on the eve of the summit. It is now a former ally. Reagan is about to play his most important role.