PRESIDENT Reagan should not allow General Secretary Gorbachev to dictate the agenda of this weekend's mini-summit in Iceland. Moscow would like to focus almost exclusively on arms control. It contends that Soviet repression is essentially an internal matter. The Kremlin also charges that America's own record is far from admirable and that the United States does not have the right to teach morality to others. On regional issues the Politburo does not see much chance of accommodation. And the Soviets would like to highlight an alleged US stonewalling on weapons cuts rather than their own seven-year-old war in Afghanistan, as well as military backing of a wide variety of brutal dictatorial regimes and terrorist factions. Michael S. Gorbachev is the beneficiary of the Western tendency to equate peace with arms control. Both in the US and in Europe there will be a strong temptation to judge the outcome of the Reykjavik parley by progress on arms control. Ronald Reagan has no choice but to take this political reality into account. And there are some useful things in the arms control field that can be accomplished.
But the roots of the US-Soviet rivalry are not in weapons buildup. The buildup naturally reinforces mutual fears and suspicions, and it is the responsibility of both leaders to try to contain it as much as possible. That is especially true because, at the present level of nuclear overkill, many current weapons programs are redundant. Their costs are disproportionate to what is achieved in terms of security. And they divert resources and attention from the much-needed modernization of US conventional forces.
Nevertheless, the source of United States-Soviet rivalry is not differences about arms but rather conflicting interests and contrasting values. It is these disputes that have to be confronted as the No. 1 priority if we are indeed serious about living in reasonable tranquillity with the Soviet Union.
Of course, only the desperately naive and/or optimistic would believe that the US has the leverage to change Soviet domestic structures. Communist Russia is a great power, with its own unique history, tradition, and circumstances. Any major transformation will have to be shaped by internal impulses.
But even token Soviet concessions on human rights matter more than -- for instance -- cuts in intermediate-range missiles (INF) in Europe. Soviet SS-20s and American Pershing 2 and cruise missiles were deployed more for political than military reasons. Even dramatic reductions in their numbers would leave the US and the USSR alike with plenty of systems perfectly capable of performing identical missions equally well or -- especially in the Soviet case -- even better. An agreement on INF may reflect more a desire to compete for Western European opinion than an effort to eliminate the danger of nuclear confrontation.
Soviet concessions on human rights, on the other hand, would save human lives and contribute to mutual trust. Mr. Gorbachev is eager to project an image of openness and civility. A good place to start would be by looking at the issue of Jewish emigration. The numbers are at an all-time low since the early '70s. And there are quite a few families who have been unable to get their exit visas for as long as 15 years. No concern over previous access to secrets can remain valid that long.
On a personal note, I remember a conversation with Prof. Alexander Lerner at my own farewell party in Moscow in December 1972. Feeling both excited over my forthcoming departure and a little guilty that many friends who had applied for exit visas before me had to stay behind, I attempted to reassure Mr. Lerner that he would also probably receive good news in a matter of months. ``Well, you may be too optimistic,'' he said; ``I would not be surprised if it would take a couple of years before we see each other again.''
Thirteen years have passed. Lerner's wife has died. His daughter won permission to move to Israel about a decade ago. But Lerner, once a distinguished member of the Soviet academic establishment and now an aging and ailing outcast, is still prevented from leaving the Soviet Union. He and many others in a similar position who are persecuted by the KGB security police and carefully isolated from the rest of society have no value to the Politburo -- except to discourage interest in emigration. Gorbachev's willingness to resolve their tragic situations would be no less telling than his flexibility on arms accords. If the general secretary wants to be accepted as a new type of Soviet leader, he should act like one.
There is little point for Mr. Reagan to preach to Mr. Gorbachev on the virtues of democracy and tolerance. But for the President to tell Gorbachev that people like Lerner are relevant to the future of the US-Soviet relationship would simply be to state the obvious about the nature of the American political culture and process.
Soviet support for states and groups that sponsor or practice terrorism should also be on the mini-summit agenda. If there is danger of a direct superpower collision, it comes precisely from Moscow's connection with those who target innocent American citizens. Think for a moment about the possible consequences of Syrian and Libyan complicity in terrorist actions leading to US military retaliation, then to Soviet response, and then . . . who knows? A growing number of Soviet military incursions into Pakistan are in the same category. This is potentially a more explosive issue than any marginal shifts in a fairly stable central strategic nuclear balance which arms control is supposed to resolve.
Unlike media pundits, with their propensity for drama and bumper sticker clich'es, history will not judge the summit in Iceland by the number of agreements reached. It is Reagan's ability to communicate to the Kremlin American interests and values, it is Gorbachev's ability not to underestimate the US resolve, that will establish whether the Reykjavik encounter is a success, a failure or just an irrelevant footnote to history.
Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.