Mikhail Gorbachev may steal the show, should he visit the United Nations in October as expected. The Soviet leader's game plan appears to include an arms control offer in a speech at the opening of the General Assembly, according to several Western diplomats.
He plans to propose that the Soviet Union substantially reduce the number of its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in exchange for a commitment by the United States not to deploy space-based weapons, these diplomats say.
Should Gorbachev do so, he might embarrass the Reagan administration and win a vote by the UN General Assembly in support of his initiative.
The Soviet leader is likely to score public relations points while putting President Reagan on the defensive and making him appear isolated, these diplomats say.
But arms control talks are due to resume in Geneva on May 30. Proposals brought forward at those talks could alter the scenario at the UN in October.
President Reagan and US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger have said they are fully committed to the US research program into space-based defense, or Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as ``star wars,'' and that space weapons are not a bargaining chip in arms control talks.
Such a proposal by Mr. Gorbachev would put the onus on the US to explain why it will not match a significant and concrete Soviet move to disarm.
This fall will mark the occasion of the UN's 40th anniversary. Perhaps as many as 60 or 80 world leaders may have to play second fiddle to the two superstars, should Gorbachev put forward a new arms control initiative.
``To predict Gorbachev's strategy at the UN next fall, it is enough to remember [the late Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev's own [strategy], during the fall of 1960 at the UN,'' said one senior Western representative.
``He submitted two resolutions to the General Assembly: one against colonialism and one advocating general disarmament. Both were overwhelmingly adopted.
``There are now indications that Gorbachev may offer to reduce Soviet land-based ICBMs by 50 percent or more if only the United States would vow to shelve its `star wars' project. Such a Soviet proposal would get more than 100, perhaps 120 votes [at the UN]. Gorbachev would thus not return to Moscow empty-handed. He could always, when negotiating with the United States, wave the UN vote and claim to speak for much of the world community.''
The diplomats interviewed expect that Gorbachev's hand will be strengthened by the growing gap between public expectations with regard to the Geneva talks and actual progress. The Soviets are likely to exploit US inflexibility on SDI.
Gorbachev is expected to stress three points -- all hinted at in recent speeches -- at the UN:
1. Disarmament through agreement is not impossible. (Some key members of the Reagan administration, such as Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, have openly said that such agreements are futile and that the US may be better off without them.)
2. D'etente is not an end in itself but should be seen as a means to ensure international security and strategic stability.
3. The Soviet Union can do without nuclear weapons. (The US has traditionally insisted it must have such weapons in its arsenal to make up for Soviet superiority in conventional weapons and manpower.)
The Soviet leader is reported to be convinced that the Soviet economy must at all costs be modernized and made to work more efficiently. Development of a Soviet version of SDI would be so costly the Soviets believe it must be stopped in its tracks.
Gorbachev is seen to be piling up bargaining chips -- in part by preying on disagreements between the US and its allies -- in order to strengthen his hand against Reagan in preparation for any potential summit meeting.
Experts here cite these examples of challenges to the US that Gorbachev might try to exploit:
The Soviets and Chinese are expected to take a considerable step toward improved relations in June, when a trade pact between the two countries is to be signed. The agreement will provide for the return of Soviet technicians to China to restore to working order factories the Soviets built there in the 1950s.
Reagan polices on SDI and trade have provoked tensions between the US and its allies.
US policy toward Nicaragua and US support for Britain against Argentina during the Falkland Islands war harmed US relations with Latin America.