AFTER almost five years in the White House and three changes at the top in the Kremlin, Ronald Reagan is to meet with the leader of the Soviet Union this November. It is a propitious time in many ways. The very prospect of a meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev could produce progress in the next 41/2 months in some areas, such as the Geneva arms talks and the situation in the Middle East.
Speculation as to whether the summit will be only a ``get-acquainted meeting'' is pointless. Clearly, neither of the superpower leaders can afford to come out of this kind of meeting without some palpable accomplishment. As recently as April 10 the President's national-security adviser, Robert McFarlane, said that Mr. Reagan would ``welcome a meeting'' with Mr. Gorbachev ``as the culmination of an extended dialogue which has produced a tangible accomplishment.'' And White House chief of staff Donald Regan told reporters that there would be no ``meetings just for meetings' sake.''
That being the case, lack of progress in some areas involving United States and Soviet interests between now and November could cast a shadow over the summit or even cause its postponement. With the SALT II treaty due to expire at the end of the year, a prearranged agreement on extension of its provisions might guarantee the two leaders at least one positive accomplishment.
But both men have much more on their minds. Mr. Gorbachev needs to lighten his foreign policy burden enough to tackle economic problems at home. Fences need mending in Eastern Europe, and the embarrassing situation in Afghanistan must be dealt with. Also, the Soviet leader needs an arms control agreement as much as does the US President.
Besides the urgent need for agreement on arms control, Mr. Reagan could use Soviet forbearance in the Mideast while the US tries to foster settlement of that region's conflicts. And while certainly not experiencing the kind of domestic economic problems Gorbachev faces, Reagan could do with some room to maneuver on the US deficit and foreign trade imbalance.
As impatient as the world has been for this meeting to take place, the wait may well have been worthwhile. After three recent changes of leadership, the Kremlin now has a man who is clearly in charge. Mr. Gorbachev will go to Geneva in November with a firm hand on foreign policy, and with the Soviet military apparently playing a diminished role. Certainly no Soviet leader since the early Brezhnev days has the vigor of this one, and Gorbachev seems more at home with the trappings of Western culture than any of his predecessors.
As for Reagan, his popularity and support at home remain strong. The President in recent months has soft-pedaled his anti-Soviet rhetoric in an obvious attempt to smooth the path to a summit. Renewed vigor appears to have replaced what seems to be an early second-term slump.
Despite the many pitfalls to be avoided both before and during the summit, it will be good to have the US and Soviet leaders talking, face to face.