AMONG the subjects to be discussed between Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan during their summit sessions is the series of regional disputes in the third world in which United States and Soviet interests clash. This item will certainly include the conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, the Middle East, and Central America. Conceivably, the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia will also be discussed.
Direct Soviet involvement or Moscow's support for surrogates in these areas has been seen by a succession of US administrations as an indication of the Kremlin's aggressive intentions. It is generally - and probably correctly - assumed that the US public and Congress will continue to be skeptical of Soviet intentions toward the US as long as these regional issues remain unresolved. A series of bilateral meetings between US and Soviet officials charged with the responsibility for these areas has preceded the summit.
Opportunities and limitations exist on both sides in any discussion of these third-world issues. Mr. Gorbachev undoubtedly sees the reduction of commitments in Afghanistan and in other areas as one way to improve his internal economic situation. But he will not wish to do this at the expense of Russian pride and regional influence. He may already, in the eyes of some in the Kremlin, have made too many concessions in the intermediate-range (INF) missile negotiations. If his political position is at all vulnerable, he will not wish to make conspicuous concessions to the US on these regional issues.
Washington, in turn, desires to lessen the present influence and continued opportunities involving the Soviet Union by a resolution of these regional conflicts. At the same time, no one in the Reagan administration wishes to do this at the expense of friends of the region or, as in the case of the Persian Gulf, in ways that give the USSR access it does not already have.
The resolution or management of third-world conflicts involves not just the two superpowers, but regional actors as well. History, local animosities, personality and leadership struggles, and differing national objectives can frustrate the best efforts of major powers. US-Soviet agreement by no means ensures compliance of the regional powers. What, then, are the possibilities for progress on regional issues at the summit?
Advances are most likely when the two powers agree on the nature of the conflict and when the need for a solution and an agreed framework for a peace already exist. These conditions may exist in Central America, where the Soviets appear to have embraced the Arias plan. It may not have been a coincidence that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega agreed to indirect discussions with the contras only after returning from his last trip to Moscow.
Such common views may also exist with respect to the Iraq-Iran war. The Soviets and the Americans have already agreed on a United Nations Security Council cease-fire resolution, and an arms embargo resolution has been discussed. Iranian intransigence, however, continues to block progress, and there may be little the two powers can do.
The Soviets show signs of wishing to leave Afghanistan, and a UN mediation effort is in place. The summit discussions would, however, need to resolve the question of a timetable for troop withdrawal, an interim regime, and protection for those who have worked with the Soviets.
Other issues are complicated by the involvement of powerful regional players. The Vietnam presence in Cambodia cannot be resolved without the participation of Vietnam, China, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the Middle East, any two-power approach must face the serious divisions within both Israel and the Arab world. In this area in particular, the US will be reluctant to admit the Soviets as a full partner in peace efforts.
The Angolan conflict is part of a larger southern Africa matrix that includes South Africa, a nation not likely to do the bidding of either superpower. The Soviets must ultimately deal, also, with the national pride and attachment to Africa of the Cubans, who are, to some extent, players in their own right.
Although the General Secretary and the President will review these situations, dramatic breakthroughs may be unlikely. If the discussions are fruitful, however, one may see over time initiatives resulting from these discussions which will move the issues to solutions. If that does happen, it will suggest that this part of the summit was a success.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.