Why Reagan pursues a summit

At a recent press conference President Reagan was asked just about every question about a possible summit. In asking the questions the White House press were able to establish publicly for the first time that Mr. Reagan was seeking through quiet diplomacy a way to sit down with Konstantin Chernenko.

But while their probing caused the President to assert twice that he would be willing to have a summit that did not end up in an arms-control agreement, the reporters never did quite ask Mr. Reagan the big question: What sort of prearranged accomplishment would be sufficient for him to meet with the Soviet leader?

The answer actually has been available since mid-May of 1983 when a top presidential adviser told at least one newsman that Mr. Reagan would be willing to meet with Yuri Andropov with only a very limited agenda of already-agreed-on goals being ''set in concrete.''

He said Reagan was telling the Soviet leaders this and adding that all he would want as a condition was ''something in terms of positive results'' that the two could announce after the summit. He said that Reagan would be satisfied if ''something new'' in economic understandings, trade agreements, or cultural exchanges were agreed to in advance.

That's all Reagan wants now, his associates report. That requirement does not amount to an old-fashioned agenda. It's just enough so that he - and Chernenko - could walk away from a summit without losing face should nothing be accomplished on arms control.

Further, the President would want a summit from which the public didn't expect too many results. White House planners indicate such a climate of low expectation might permit substantial progress on arms control.

Reagan says that it isn't enough just for him and Chernenko to get to know each other, although he does see a summit as an opportunity - should it come about - for the two men to size each other up.

Reagan is known to believe that President Ford, in his meeting with Leonid Brezhnev at Vladivostok, was able to do much for the US by establishing a friendly though arms-length relationship with the Soviet leader.

Critics of the President are saying he is making these gestures toward possible rapprochement with the Soviets to try to deflate the Democrats' peace issue. They assert he is merely seeking to quiet the growing expressions of anxiety both in the United States and abroad that through military buildup and belligerent rhetoric he is moving the East and West toward nuclear confrontation.

Perhaps some of his warming up to summitry is political, with an eye on the election. But there is something else here, which relates to Reagan the man:

There is a becoming modesty in this President, in the way he talks about himself and what he does even when he is claiming major triumphs. That's part of his charm.

Few recent presidents have been as secure and self-confident as this actor turned politician. It is not an act.

Mr. Reagan is certain that, one-on-one with Chernenko, he stands a good chance of negotiating an arms-control agreement. He talks of a pact that might well contain elements of mutual arms reduction. The President may be overconfident. Perhaps Chernenko is too firmly indoctrinated, to show flexibility. But Reagan's feeling that he has the negotiating ability to, possibly, mark up a signal summit arms achievement is the most important ingredient in his current effort to meet with Chernenko.

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