There is talk of a Reagan-Andropov summit meeting, and the President is understood to favor such a meeting if ''something new in the way of economic understandings, trade agreements, or cultural exchanges could be agreed to in advance.''
This sounds familiar to those who have worked on previous US-USSR summits. Both sides at a summit like to sign agreements which show their domestic and foreign audiences that the meeting was successful.
Also, the Soviets in general like bilateral agreements with the United States because they lend legitimacy to the Soviet government and imply a co-equal status with the other superpower. Accordingly, at the Nixon-Brezhnev summits of 1972, '73, and '74 a total of 23 bilateral agreements were signed, some on such vital issues as arms control, others on less vital issues such as exchanges in science and culture.
But such agreements, negotiated under pressures from the approaching summit, are fraught with difficulties and risks for the negotiators. I was on the delegation that negotiated the Agreement on Cooperation in Environmental Protection with the Soviets in 1972, in advance of the Nixon-Brezhnev summit that year. In this case, the time pressures of the approaching summit and Soviet eagerness to conclude bilateral agreements on cooperation with the US worked to persuade the Soviets to make some concessions.
By contrast, negotiations for a new cultural agreement to be signed at the 1979 Carter-Brezhnev summit were not successful. The two negotiating teams wisely decided that they were too far apart on several issues and that a new agreement should be taken up later, free from summit pressures. (As it turned out, the subsequent negotiations in December 1979 were also unsuccessful when the Soviets sought ''guarantees of security'' for participants in cultural exchanges - essentially, US guarantees against defection by Soviet artists.)
The US-USSR Agreement on Cooperation in Science and Technology, also signed at the 1972 summit, was negotiated under great pressure, first by White House officials in secret with the Soviets, and then by the State Department when several difficult issues needed to be resolved, but without adequate time for staff work and consultation with the US scientific community. The Soviets wanted this particular agreement to be signed at the summit, but it remained for a later negotiation, by teams of scientists from both countries, to work out exactly which fields of science and technology would be the subject of cooperation under the newly signed agreement. (The science and technology agreement was to last only until 1982 when it was allowed by the Reagan administration to lapse as one of its sanctions against the Soviet Union.)
In short, the history of summits has also been a history of various agreements signed for political purposes, when bilateral relations were good. Such agreements, however, have not always withstood the test of time when bilateral relations deteriorated.
As for another US-USSR cultural agreement, it may be questioned whether one is really necessary. The Soviets want a cultural agreement to give a stamp of approval to exchanges they conduct with the US, and to satisfy their own bureaucratic needs to spell out in writing exactly what will be exchanged, and how. Since the Soviet government controls all culture and education in the USSR, one can understand its interest in regulating such exchanges, especially in a country where everything is political in nature. But this does not hold true for the US where the private sector, or state and local governments, are predominant in these fields.
In the absence of a cultural agreement a number of exchanges between the two countries have continued where the US partner in the exchange has been a private rather than government agency. Among these are exchanges of students and professors, sports teams, the seminars held by the Dartmouth Conference and the US United Nations Association, and many people-to-people exchanges such as the current seminars between the New England Society of Newspaper Editors and the Union of Soviet Journalists.
These exchanges take place without an intergovernmental agreement because both the Soviet and US sponsors find them useful. And the ''guarantees of security'' once sought by the Soviets now seem to be a moot question. Emil Gilels, the celebrated Soviet pianist, gave a recital in Carnegie Hall in April 1983, and thus became the first Soviet artist to perform in the US since the old cultural agreement lapsed in December 1979. His performance here seems to indicate that cultural exchanges can indeed take place without an intergovernmental agreement.
An old Russian proverb says, ''The slower you go, the further you'll get.'' So let's not rush into more summit agreements negotiated under time pressures and without adequate preparation. Rather, let's decide first what we want, what kind of arrangements with the Soviets best suit our interests and will stand the test of time, and the bad as well as the good years of US-USSR relations.