RONALD Reagan's handshake with Mikhail Gorbachev tomorrow, to initiate the Geneva summit talks, will mark the high point of the two men's careers thus far. If only because he is younger and expectably looks forward to a longer tour in office, Mr. Gorbachev could be said to find the meeting less decisive. There will presumably be other summits with other American presidents.
True, there are clear incentives for the Soviet leader to make Geneva '85 a success. Gorbachev seems in a hurry to make his mark. His plan to nurture a meager 1 percent-a-year growth out of the frozen tundra of the Soviet economy the next dozen or so years points up the contrast with an American economy expanding at a multiple of that rate. The workability of the United States' ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative may be debated; the impetus such a program gives to Western weapons technology is not, however.
Three successive Soviet leaders have failed in their efforts to bluff American midrange missiles off NATO soil; negotiation is Gorbachev's only remaining resort. A successful summit would make the East-West competition less onerous for the East-bloc nations that must bear the mobile missiles, the tensions, the defense burdens on their stunted economies; it would make it easier for Moscow to deal with Western Europe and angle for the trade and technology it covets.
The Soviet Union, however, has a greater capacity to turn within itself, to endure great hardship among its peoples, to bear intrigue in high places. We do not yet really know whether Mr. Gorbachev, for all his steely smiling, has really lifted himself an inch above the collective Soviet leadership.
Simply for him to appear in Geneva with Mr. Reagan reaffirms Soviet superpower status; nonetheless, a minimally successful summit -- of civil but not warming dialogue, with pro forma cultural exchanges initialed but not a framework for nuclear arms reductions, and gentlemen's disagreements about human rights and regional conflicts -- would chiefly send Gorbachev back to Moscow to await a future president.
The American people's expectations for Mr. Reagan in Geneva are no more precise. They expect him to bargain in good faith. Between the extremes of seeming to be uninterested in an agreement or overly eager -- neither one likely -- the President has wide latitude. The mix of American public attitudes on the summit gives Reagan a fairly comfortable margin for results. Americans are naturally inclined to rally behind their presidents. They are sufficiently skeptical of Soviet intentions, and realistic abou t the complexity of global political and strategic relations, that they cannot be said to have bound President Reagan to a predetermined outcome.
Nonetheless, the Geneva parley can be said to represent the epitome of Reagan's career. He has made the competition between East and West the central theme of his foreign and strategic policy. He has hitched the huge defense buildup of his first five years in office, and commitments beyond, to the promise that strength would win concessions from the Soviets. His political image is based on a reputation of prowess as a face-to-face communicator. A vision of a world of peace for America's children and gr andchildren is vintage Reagan.
Politically, too, the President now looks to foreign policy for second-term successes. His lone remaining second-term domestic initiative, tax reform, is already unraveling on Capitol Hill.
But it is more the responsibility of leadership for the Western world, not personal concern for his place in history, that should firmly set the President's shoulders in Geneva tomorrow. In such responsibility there is no room for wasting time, recriminations, or mere pleasantries. Reagan goes to Geneva the representative of a tradition -- the democratic governments' essential commitment to peace.
There is opportunity for results to be set in motion in Geneva. A mix of motives fuels America's drive for development of defensive weapons; common sense argues for reductions in offensive missile arsenals: An accommodation should be reachable. The Middle East and Central America also offer an opportunity for a start toward accord.
The public will want to keep its own views and expectations for the summit unimpeded, to pray for clarity in exchanges, intelligence in analysis, and patience, wisdom, and goodwill in the two days of discourse.
It is no small moment. After a handshake in Geneva, the representatives of the world's principal competing systems must advance relations toward peace.