For years the United States has had to deal with a stodgy and immobile Soviet leadership. But when Ronald Reagan meets Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in November, he will confront a formidable leader who is on the move at home and determined not to be a pushover abroad.
That, say Sovietologists, should make for an interesting encounter.
The administration is careful not to build up expectations about the summit conference, scheduled for Nov. 19 and 20. It says no major breakthroughs are expected. Although an agenda will be worked out, the essential purpose of the meeting is to enable the two leaders to become acquainted, discuss the substantive issues, and get a better understanding of each other's positions.
But experts in and out of government do not rule out progress in US-Soviet relations that goes beyond atmospherics. The key question is whether the two leaders will be able to cut through the stalemate on arms control, the single most important issue in bilateral relations. At the moment the Soviet and American positions in the Geneva arms talks are incompatible.
``The President is an unusual individual in person-to-person contact, and Gorbachev, too, seems to be less stolid than other leaders,'' says one administration official. ``That could be hazardous, but if the chemistry is right, that could change things.''
Top-down policy changes are easier to bring about in the administration, the official says. If the President gives the signal to change direction on his Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as ``star wars''), the bureaucrats will have to swing into action. The same is true in the Soviet Union.
``It's impossible to gloss over star wars,'' says William Hyland, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and a former deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs.
``Both sides are going in knowing there will have to be some give if they do not want to come out with a big mess,'' he says.
However, some diplomatic observers question whether the President or Mr. Gorbachev need a dramatic breakthrough at the meeting.
In political terms, both will gain from the atmospherics of a summit and by returning home proclaiming that no concessions were made.
``It will be useful for Gorbachev, two months before the party Congress, to assure his colleagues the Soviet Union is not facing World War III and can focus on the domestic economy,'' says a State Department analyst.
Soviet experts see the two leaders testing each other at the summit meeting, each determined to be the ``testor'' and not the ``testee.''
Gorbachev above all needs to show that he can deal with the US better than his predecessors. Mr. Reagan needs to show he can hold his own with the new man in the Kremlin.
Mark Garrison, director of the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University, suggests two alternative outcomes would be acceptable to Gorbachev.
One would be to return to Moscow saying he had gone the extra mile on arms control but to no avail, and the Soviet Union would therefore have to tighten its belt to pay for a further military buildup.
``That would not be an unsatisfactory outcome,'' says Mr. Garrison, a former US diplomat who served in Moscow. ``He would be showing his toughness -- that he's cut out of the mold of previous leaders.''
Alternatively the Soviet leader could return home saying that an arms deal is achievable, making it possible to reduce Soviet defense burdens.
``But I doubt Reagan is prepared to give that, so Gorbachev will have to settle for No. 1, and that's bad news for the Soviets and for us,'' Garrison says.
Gorbachev, in any case, is seen moving more briskly and demonstrating his toughness.
The very venue of the summit meeting, Geneva, reflects a desire not to be seen kowtowing to Washington. The administration preferred a meeting here, pointing out that the last four US-Soviet summits were held either on Soviet territory or in a third country.
The Soviet leader is consolidating his power quickly, say diplomatic experts. He has boosted former foreign minister Andrei Gromyko into the presidency, a largely ceremonial position; he has brought new men into the Politburo and the Secretariat; and he is making changes in the party Central Committee.
By appointing Eduard Shevardnadze as foreign minister, experts say, Gorbachev clearly hopes to start with a fresh slate and make his own imprint on Soviet foreign policy.
``Gorbachev may have found it difficult to be boss with Gromyko there,'' suggests Malcolm Toon, former US ambassador to Moscow.
Because of Mr. Shevardnadze's inexperience abroad, it is speculated that the Soviet leader may intend to give foreign policy a back seat while he concentrates on trying to reform the lagging Soviet economy. Even though Mr. Gromyko remains present as the elder statesman, Shevardnadze will have a lot of boning up to do.
But administration experts note that Shevardnadze is known for his efficiency and that Gromyko, too, had no experience when he was first assigned the foreign policy field.
Gorbachev, for his part, has scheduled a trip to France in October as well as the summit meeting with Reagan, indicating that he intends to be his own foreign-policy man.
``They're moving skillfully in the bureaucratic sense,'' says one analyst. ``The Soviet system is to bring in relatively younger men and leave them a long time.''