Washington — PRESIDENT Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will hold eight hours of talks in two days. They will also meet for several more hours during social occasions. What will they talk about?
Mr. Gorbachev has made no secret of his overriding interest in arms control. The new Kremlin leader goes to Geneva primarily to see if he can strike a bargain with the American President.
In recent weeks Gorbachev has sought to focus public attention on Moscow's offer to make deep reductions in its nuclear arsenals in exchange for a halt to the President's antimissile defense program, or ``star wars'' as it is popularly called. While presenting his own counteroffer, Mr. Reagan insists his Strategic Defense Initiative is not a bargaining chip.
But there may be a difference between what the two leaders do and say as they position themselves for the summit and what each is prepared to give to reach an understanding. The President's political record as a compromiser -- hanging tough on his negotiating position until the nth hour -- suggests the door remains open. Moscow's private probings also point to more flexibility than Gorbachev's public statements.
The summit is not expected to produce a nuts-and-bolts strategic arms agreement. But the superpowers could agree on guidelines or a broad framework governing an accord, such as cuts in offensive arsenals in exchange for some limits on SDI testing and a reaffirmation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (recently given a new legal interpretation in Washington). It would then be left to the negotiators in Geneva to hammer out the details.
However, concerned that Gorbachev not elevate arms control to the make-or-break issue of the summit, Washington has also stressed other elements on its agenda. It maintains that an arms control agreement alone will not ensure a more stable relationship, for the arms race is not the cause but the symptom of US-Soviet tensions. Hence Reagan's focus on other agenda items:
Regional issues. Mr. Reagan argues that Soviet efforts to extend its influence in various regions of the world contribute to tension and instability. At the United Nations last month the President cited five countries -- Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Angola, and Nicaragua -- where the Soviets are directly or indirectly engaged in supporting regimes ``at war with their own people.'' He urged resolving these conflicts through political means.
As the US seeks Soviet restraint in third-world areas, the Soviet Union has its own concerns about American policy. It has long been frustrated, for instance, that it is excluded from the peacemaking process in the Middle East, where it feels it has legitimate strategic and geopolitical interests.
Human rights. The President is determined to raise the issue of heightened Soviet repression during the past few years. Evidence of this includes the exile from Moscow of Andrei Sakharov, the crackdown on the dissident movement, the marked slowdown in the emigration of Soviet Jews, and intimidation of Western journalists.
Mr. Reagan will point out that these and other human rights abuses violate the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, influence Americans' perceptions of the USSR, and therefore adversely affect US-Soviet relations.
Moscow does not like this topic but will address it by pointing out what it sees as human rights violations in the United States: the high rate of unemployment (in which individuals are deprived of a ``right to work''); evidences anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews; and the existence of ``political prisoners.''
Bilateral relations. There are many secondary issues on which the superpowers have been negotiating and where progress is possible. At the least the summitteers may sign a new cultural, technical, and scientific exchange agreement (the old one lapsed in 1979).
Other possiblities include agreements on establishment of new consulates general in New York and Kiev and on resumption of direct air service between the two countries.
While nuclear arms control will remain the paramount issue, other arms questions may also get attention. The administration has evidenced some interest in restraining the proliferation of chemical weapons, for instance.
The Soviets might also agree on some ``confidence-building'' military measures which NATO has on the table in the European security talks in Stockholm and to one or two ideas proposed in the MBFR (Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction) talks in Vienna on conventional weapons.
Every American President since Franklin D. Roosevelt has held at least one meeting with the Soviet Prime Minister or the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The post-World War II East-West summits include: July 1955 -- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, and French Premier Edgar Faure met in Geneva. Eisenhower advanced an ``open skies'' proposal -- which the Soviets rejected -- calling for exchange of military blueprints and permitting aerial reconnaissance of each other's installations.
September 1959 -- Eisenhower and Khrushchev met in Washington. The two agreed at Camp David to expand exchanges and remove the Soviet deadline for a Berlin settlement.
May 1960 -- Eisenhower, Khrushchev, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and French President Charles de Gaulle met in Paris. The conference collapsed when Eisenhower refused Khrushchev's demand for an apology after Gary Power's U-2 spy flight.
June 1961 -- President Kennedy and Khrushchev met in Vienna. Kennedy was sobered by Khrushchev's threats over Berlin.
June 1967 -- President Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin met in Glassboro, N.J. They discussed the Mideast conflict, disarmament, and Vietnam.
May 1972 -- President Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev met in Moscow. The two signed the SALT I agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as well as agreements on health, environmental cooperation, incidents at sea, scientific and cultural exchanges. This summit launched the d'etente era.
June 1973 -- Nixon and Brezhnev met in Washington. The two signed an agreement on principles for the SALT II talks, to be concluded by 1974.
June-July 1974 -- Nixon and Brezhnev met in Moscow and Yalta. A protocol was signed limiting each side to one ABM site, restricting underground nuclear weapons tests.
November 1974 -- President Ford and Brezhnev met in Vladivostok. The two agreed in principle on some basic elements of a SALT II agreement.
July-August 1975 -- Ford and Brezhnev met in Helsinki. The two tried unsuccessfully to reach further agreement on arms limitations.
June 1979 -- President Carter and Brezhnev met in Vienna. The two signed the SALT II treaty, related agreements, and a statement of guidelines for further arms control negotiations. The SALT II pact was never ratified, but both sides continue to abide by its basic provisions.