Getting to know all about world leaders

Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale appear to agree in principle on the idea of regular Soviet-American summit meetings. Within two weeks, each has pushed that theme.

In the present cold war atmosphere, and with Yuri Andropov still absent, the point seems moot. But the idea is sensible enough to be kept alive for better times, particularly the next presidential term.

Mr. Mondale was the more specific. Speaking to the National Press Club Jan. 3 , he called for ''regular'' annual summit sessions. Mr. Reagan didn't use the word ''summit.'' But in his thaw speech Jan. 16 aimed at improving Soviet-American relations, he urged that ''high-level consultations become regular and normal.''

The idea of a regular, no-hoopla annual summit meeting between the American president and the Soviet general secretary is not new. Ever since the Western leaders embarked on their annual summit meetings at Rambouillet in 1975, there have been calls for routine, low-key annual reviews between the superpower chiefs.

Another variation, more modest in aim, says that whenever either nation installs a new leader there would be a get-acquainted summit within an agreed period. Several arguments against such plans for regular US-USSR summits can be anticipated. Some are valid. But, weighing the alternatives, the dangers of not having such superpower meetings are greater than the dangers of having them. Furthermore, the risks of holding them are for the most part known and can therefore be guarded against.

What are those risks?

* That the Western democracies would become more complacent and ignore geopolitical moves to divide them, and to cut off trade and resources. Popular euphoria is usual after summits. Euphoria often translates into resistance to foreign aid, troops stationed abroad, alliance military budgets.

* That personal differences would be exacerbated at a summit. Or that one of the two leaders would feel betrayed and bitter when some subsequent move by the other side seemed to breach a summit understanding. President Kennedy felt the need to be extra tough because he believed Secretary Khrushchev had left their 1961 Vienna summit feeling he could bully Kennedy. President Carter felt the Afghan invasion betrayed the spirit of his Vienna embrace with Secretary Brezhnev.

* That the summits would be devalued over time - perhaps turning into a bloated, flying publicity circus like some recent Western economic summits.

* That either leader, provoked by an Afghanistan or Vietnam, would dramatically boycott a session in order to demonstrate displeasure. Tit for tat, the other side would do the same. End of low-key regularity.

One simple way of dealing with most of these risks would be to start with a modest two-part summit program. Part 1 would be agreement that a new leader on either side would call for a meeting within, say, six months. Part 2 would prescribe an annual opportunity - not an obligation - to meet at a world gathering.

An informal introductory contact of superpower leaders is hard to fault. Such an encounter, if part of a standard post-inaugural routine, need not raise inflated public expectations. It need carry no risk of failure, if no heavy agenda is publicized. It can be long or short, amiable or guarded, in keeping with policies of the moment. But inevitably, it would give each leader a better understanding of the other.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl believes, for instance, that Yuri Andropov may have been better informed about the minutiae of Ronald Reagan than any of his Kremlin predecessors were about their American opposite numbers. As head of the KGB, Andropov was smothered in detail. But, says Kohl, the Soviet chief didn't really understand much about the actual character and ''feel'' of Reagan. As the French say about their school graduates, he knew everything but nothing else.

If a summit meeting is about anything it is about getting to know the man behind the intelligence dossier, during informal sessions and over breakfast eggs.

Part 2 of this low-key summit formula would avoid at least some of the hazards of overdramatization and broken-off talks. If the two leaders simply agreed that they would go to the UN General Assembly for a few days each September or October, they would have the option of talking briefly or at length , or not talking at all and letting their foreign ministers carry on explorations.

Such a program is not much of a departure from longstanding practice. The foreign ministers already go to New York every year and hold talks fairly free of hoopla. Their chiefs sometimes go for the same purpose.

The occasion is relatively low key. There is already a show going on. The head of state has other things to do than just see his superpower opposite. He has allies to talk to; a world forum to address. So if there is a reason not to hold a summit one year, there is no difficulty in skipping it, then resuming next year. If things are going well and both sides want to pitch their citizens, they can schedule a parley in Glassboro or Omsk.

The aim of getting leaders together should be somewhat like the aim of a White House cabinet session or a Politburo meeting: to gather information. To form impressions. To question and be questioned in the interest of accuracy. To get nuances that might be filtered out by second- and third-hand analysis passed along by aides. To make future letters or phone calls easier.

A summit should not supplant meetings of experts on arms, technology, or trade. But it should not be a last resort, either - occurring only after years of technical negotiation, postponed until the atmosphere is just right in both countries. Summits should, in short, become more routine, less formidable.

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