Three different things with no direct relationship happened on one and the same day this week. Taken together they tell us both that the summit in Geneva is a watershed event, and why. First was the chummy, genial first meetings of the two top men from the two super capitals of power. Second was the Congress in Washington sending a $1 billion Navy appropriation item back to the Pentagon. Third was a pair of Soviet-built MIG-23 fighter planes shot down by a pair of United States-built F-15 fighter planes.
The three events all happened on Tuesday, Nov. 19. It was coincidence that Congress sent a naval request back on the same day that President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were exchanging jokes about the weather in far-off Geneva. It was coincidence that US weapons won another dog fight against Soviet weapons that same day in the Middle East. But the act of Congress and the incident of war help to explain, if only symbolically, the geniality in Geneva.
The act of Congress makes an already familiar point. President Reagan's big arms buildup has gone pretty much as far as it can go. The time is past when the Congress would vote anything that the Pentagon wanted. The diplomatic leverage of military power has reached its peak for Mr. Reagan. He is not going to get any more by waiting a year than he already had in his diplomatic hand in Geneva this week. A wise investor knows when to invest his assets. Plainly, Mr. Reagan went to Geneva ready to start inve sting his accumulated assets.
The outcome of a single aerial dog fight proves little about the relative quality of the competing weapons. A good pilot in a MIG-23 would probably win against a poor pilot in an F-15. Technically, the 2-to-0 score in the air over Lebanon on Tuesday proves only that the Israeli pilots in the US-built aircraft shot first.
But the incident illustrates the fact that Moscow's own steady buildup of military power, which has been going on ever since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, has not bought them a decided qualitative advantage over the West. Their aircraft continue to lose in the skirmishing in the Middle East. Their military venture in Afghanistan has led them into a stalemate.
For Mr. Gorbachev, as well as for Mr. Reagan, the time has come to use the leverage in hand. There is no more to be had.
The economies of the two superpowers fit into this pattern. The US economic boom is beginning to falter. Retail sales are sluggish. The market is saturated with new office space, new condominiums, new hotels -- perhaps almost saturated with new motor cars. Mr. Reagan needs lower interest rates to keep the economy going. He can get them only by trimming down the deficit, which he can do only at the expense of his weapons program.
The Soviet economy has been stimulated, a little, by Mr. Gorbachev's crusade against alcoholism, sluggishness, and inefficiency. But to keep the improvement going he needs to be able to devote nearly full time to the task. He can hardly afford another round in the arms race or any expensive overseas ventures.
Both men have powerful reasons to defuse sore spots in their relationships wherever possible, and for trying to derail another round in the arms race.
None of the above means that Mr. Gorbachev will go back to Moscow from Geneva and immediately order Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, or liberate Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Nor will Mr. Reagan return to Washington and cancel aid to the ``contra'' rebels on the fringes of Nicaragua. Those, which have been the main sore spots in the relationship for some time now, can only be resolved gradually, not suddenly.
Great powers do not abandon projects of such nature suddenly, and seldom avowedly.
But we can already see the outlines of what to expect when the two great men return to their capitals. Mr. Gorbachev will probably try harder to find a graceful way out of his no-win situation in Afghanistan. Mr. Reagan may in return be more open to the idea of negotiations with the existing regime in Nicaragua. Moscow may play a less negative role in the Middle East and might even become slightly helpful in trying to find a peace there between Arabs and Israelis.
And above all, the search will go on for arms control agreements that might head off a major new arms race.
The meeting of the two men at Geneva does not in itself cause the beginning of a new chapter in East-West relations. Rather, it records and exposes the fact that a new chapter has in fact opened.
In the chapter now ending the Soviets sent their soldiers into Afghanistan and US sent its soldiers to Lebanon and Grenada. It was a story of weapons rather than of diplomacy, accompanied by a drum fire of military buildup and rhetorical hostility.
It is inconceivable that the rhetoric of the old chapter will carry forward at full blast into the new. It is unlikely that either will use its armed force in new foreign ventures -- so long as the mood of Geneva survives. It could of course be a short story, but the chances are the other way.
It is not easy for the US and the Soviet Union to live peaceably in the same world. But the two are practicing at it.
That is what Geneva is all about.