Gromyko's visit

After nearly four years of estrangement in United States-Soviet relations, it now looks as though Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko will stop by the White House.

First off, the visit - a resumption of Mr. Gromyko's custom with previous Washington administrations of visiting after attending the United Nations opening in New York each fall - should be welcomed. Mr. Reagan has not personally met with a high-ranking Soviet official since he took office. It is assumed that meeting face to face invites civility, whereas long-distance debate leads to suspicion and diatribe.

Getting on with direct talks has to be reassuring to a world that has seen in recent months arms talks adjourned and another Olympics boycott, and in recent days visits of high-ranking East-bloc leaders to West Germany canceled.

If the meeting occurs, it will not truly be a summit, which would take months to prepare, even though the White House may well want to get as much political mileage from a Gromyko visit as possible to display the President as a seeker of peace. In late September, it would come near the first tentative date for a presidential debate. Mr. Reagan can expect to be asked by his opponent whether such an 11th-hour meeting with a foreign minister reflects an adequate diplomatic return for the American military buildup, which, it was claimed, was meant to give Washington unmatched negotiating leverage.

One can only speculate on Moscow's motives. Having just squelched East German President Erich Honecker's visit to West Germany and a similar one by Bulgarian President Todor Zhivkov, the Kremlin may want to further assert its command in East-West relations and head off other satellite gestures of rapprochement. A meeting with the White House chief may be Moscow's way of dispelling reports of turmoil in the Kremlin command. The offer to meet may be part of the Kremlin-White House game of making the other out to be the chief stumbling block to negotiations. It could be part of a maneuver to get the United States to agree to a moratorium on antisatellite weapon tests, which the US has scheduled for November.

One thing is for certain: It gives an able, tough, articulate Soviet official the full attention of the Western world at the apex of the American political cycle.

There are risks in this for the White House. It brings into question the wisdom of campaigner Reagan's repeatedly raising the issue of Soviet violation of the Yalta Agreement, as he does in Polish or other East European ethnic communities. Publication of alleged Soviet violations of arms agreements at this time likewise hardly seems like a fit welcome for Gromyko. And what if Mr. Gromyko uses the occasion to scold his Washington hosts?

Dealing with the Soviets is no tailgate picnic, even without the stadium roar of a presidential election in the background. Still, better talks up close than growling from afar.

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