Hurdles on the road to a superpower summit. Assessing the benefits and risks for Reagan
Bound tomorrow for the chilly shores of Iceland, President Reagan wants to come to a meeting of minds with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on some arms control issues and batten down plans for a full-scale summit meeting. Administration officials voice hope that the meeting will energize the whole US-Soviet dialogue. But they stress that this will be a working meeting designed to see what is doable in arms control and perhaps such regional issues as Afghanistan -- but not to come away with signed agreements.Skip to next paragraph
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``I wouldn't expect that the two heads are going to get down into the nuts and bolts of these particular [arms] issues,'' US Secretary of State George Shultz said yesterday. But, he added, they could formulate statements in a way to help negotiators at the Geneva arms talks.
The administration is conspicuously trying to lower public expectations and address the alarms of conservatives who fear Mr. Reagan may give away something on arms control, especially on his SDI or ``star wars'' program. In a news conference, Mr. Shultz pointedly spelled out a US agenda that includes regional issues and human rights. As for arms issues, he said the President would continue to explain his position and probe for Soviet responses to his proposals.
There appear to be potential benefits and risks in the two-day get-together. Some longtime Soviet experts are uneasy, suggesting that the President is leaping into an event cleverly staged by the public relations-minded Mr. Gorbachev to woo Western Europe and wriggle out of a visit to the United States. These experts place little stock in the benefits of a general agreement on intermediate-range missiles in Europe, which most arms experts think is achievable.
``We ought to recognize that this was a Soviet proposal made by Gorbachev a month ago, and he plans to press Reagan on nuclear testing,'' says Malcolm Toon, former US ambassador to Moscow. ``He's very shrewd, because a test ban appeals to the appetite of any human being around the world, and he's playing to Western public opinion. I wish Reagan had less appetite for a summit, because this enables Gorbachev to play the game.''
But many other diplomatic and arms control observers view the mini-summit as holding out propsects for progress in the superpower relationship -- with minimal risk to Reagan. The President, they say, cannot lose, whichever way the Reykjavik meeting turns out:
If the two do come to an understanding about some secondary arms agreements -- above all, on medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe -- this would lead to a full-blown summit meeting and provide political momentum for keeping the superpower dialogue going on other, more important arms issues.
If the leaders cannot agree on the broad outlines of an arms package that persuades Gorbachev to go through with an American visit, the President will be in a position to say that he held tough with the Soviets, gave nothing away, and will go on trying to reach an accommodation with Moscow.
``Gorbachev will have his own agenda, but that's the nature of superpower summitry,'' a Senate arms expert says. ``It's useful to have them talking, for the more Reagan talks the more he learns and the American people most benefit. Even an agreement on INF would be useful and significant.''
In political terms, Washington pundits speculate on the benefits the Republicans could reap in the fall congressional elections if the Iceland meeting is successful. But some longtime political experts see little risk or benefit from the summit exercise.