Hurdles on the road to a superpower summit. Assessing the benefits and risks for Reagan
Washington — 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.
``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.
Democratic analyst Gregg Schneiders says the event will have no significant impact in the elections. A presidential success in foreign policy does not rub off on the members of his own party, he says. Voters will be judging the quality and merits of the individual candidates.
``It could be significant in terms of Reagan's own standing, if he comes out with assurance of another summit and optimism about US-Soviet relations,'' he says. ``But what a president does in terms of summitry has little significance -- pro or con -- for other members of his own party.''
Even the President's own standing is not appreciably affected. Gallup polls taken immediately before and immediately after previous summit meetings do not disclose a sudden uptick in approval ratings.
Out of nine summits between 1955 and 1979, the highest approval change was 9 points -- for Richard Nixon after the summit with Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow in 1972. Dwight Eisenhower gained 4 points after the meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Geneva but kept the same approval rating after his meeting with Mr. Khrushchev at Camp David.
John Kennedy lost only 3 points after the ill-famed summit with Khrushchev in Vienna and Lyndon Johnson lost 5 points after meeting with Alexei Kosygin in 1967.
Gerald Ford lost 6 points after the meeting in Vladivostok. Jimmy Carter gained 3 points after the meeting with Mr. Brezhnev in Vienna.
GOP insiders say that the President need not fear reaction from party conservatives for jumping too fast on an Iceland summit. Now, they say, is the time for him to demonstrate his negotiating skill.
``The vast majority of Americans want to see progress, and this shows malleability and that's good for Reagan,'' says James Lake, a key official in the 1984 campaign. ``He has proven to the American people his toughness and firmness. Now he's demonstrating that he can accommodate and work out something with the Soviets.'' SUMMIT HISTORY Post World War II US-Soviet summits JULY 1955 Geneva Dwight Eisenhower, Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, British and French prime ministers. Result: Soviet rejection of US aerial reconnaissance proposal; no progress on reunification of Germany SEPTEMBER 1959 Camp David, Md. Eisenhower and party chief Khrushchev. Result: agreement to expand exchanges and postpone decision on Berlin partition issue MAY 1960 Paris Khrushchev, British prime minister, and French president. Result: meeting dissolved after US U-2 spy plane downed over Soviet Union JUNE 1961 Vienna John Kennedy and Khrushchev. Result: discussion of nuclear test ban; no agreement on Berlin, which was partitioned two months later JUNE 1967 Glassboro, N.J. Lyndon B. Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. Result: no agreements on disarmament MAY 1972 Moscow Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Result: beginning of d'etente era; Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Antiballistic Missile Treaty signed; exchange programs JUNE 1973 Washington Nixon and Mr. Brezhnev. Result: accord on avoidance of nuclear war signed; cooperative exchanges JUNE-JULY 1974 Moscow and Yalta and Brezhnev. Result: treaty banning underground nuclear testing; 10-year economic agreement NOVEMBER 1974 Vladivostok Gerald Ford and Brezhnev. Result: tentative agreement to limit number of strategic offensive weapons, paving the way for SALT II AUGUST 1975 Helsinki Ford and Brezhnev meet during 35-nation conference. Result: no arms control agreements, but conference results in signing of Helsinki Accords JUNE 1979 Vienna Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev. Result: signing of SALT II, guidelines drawn for further arms talks NOVEMBER 1985 Geneva Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Result: no agreement on arms control; accord on cultural and other exchanges