WHAT metaphor will sum up these few days of summit talks between President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev? Will the Soviet leader's Washington visit be just a bloom out of season? Will it be mostly a media event, fixing on a minor arms treaty that in effect rolls back the European midrange missile forces to where things were a few years ago? Will other signs of a more general climatic shift in superpower relations emerge - cuts, say, of 50 percent in long-range missiles, the big instruments of nuclear intimidation, on the way toward even more drastic elimination of missiles? Will the Soviets agree to reduce the East bloc's edge in conventional military power in Europe, an ``asymmetrical'' advantage that would be further enhanced by missile cuts? Will the Reagan administration accommodate Soviet insistence that ABM-treaty restrictions on defensive weapons be honored - something demanded even by some domestic supporters of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative?
Chills in foreign relations can descend as quickly as the Korean airliner that was cruelly shot down. Toxic phrases like ``evil empire'' can linger in the international environment for years, expanding the rhetoric of mistrust.
Both sides, hosts and guests, are trying to make the most of this event - to control the story. Both sides are also wary of what the other might be up to: conservatives, that in the euphoria of getting together the two powerful leaders will recklessly give away the store, as nearly happened a year ago in Reykjavik.
On the whole, the two sides have settled on a more deliberate pace and process for negotiating differences. Those differences remain enormous: The two ``democracies'' have opposing concepts of the individual's rights vis-`a-vis the state. For all its worldliness, the US remains an island nation, a refuge for the oppressed and an opportunity for the adventurous; the Soviet Union is an amalgam of Asian and European peoples who competed for hegemony over the northern Euro-Asian landmass. Creation of the Soviet socialist federation was one way to reconstrue, not truly eliminate, those tensions.
Modest expectations from summits are wise not simply because they hedge against large disappointments, or set small gains in a more favorable light. They are appropriate because of the slowness and difficulty of change.
We can control our metaphors.
The way we view things shapes them.
We do not want to trivialize, with hyperbole and media chatter, this week's opportunity to advance world peace. Will we see this as one bloom endangered by great odds, or as a promise of far greater future harmony for mankind?