The least surprising world news of the past week was the conclusion of the second round of arms control talks in Geneva without progress worth mentioning. After all, what would you expect to happen at those Geneva talks from the moment it was known that Washington's Ronald Reagan and Moscow's Mikhail Gor-bachev were maneuvering toward a summit in November? The really interesting question which emerges from the week's news is whether Mr. Reagan's ordeal at the Bethesda Naval Hospital will cause either Moscow or Washington or both to be more- or less-inclined to allow the summit to become a serious beginning to a new and easier phase in East-West relations.
It is easier to figure out the Washington side of the matter than the Moscow side. The Bethesda episode inevitably raises a question of whether Reagan will at some point choose to retire before the statutory end of his second term. But it is to be taken for granted that he will not consider any such option until he has first explored to the limit his chance of concluding a new and safer relationship with the Soviets.
He took office 41/2 years ago with a foreign policy agenda. His goal was a significant increase in American military power to be followed at the appropriate moment by negotiations with the Soviets. We know that from over a year ago he had set mid-1985 as the time to proceed to diplomacy. His November meeting with Mr. Gorbachev vember is roughly on schedule with that aim.
A man of the Reagan temperament is not going to be deprived of the pleasure and personal obligation of finding out whether he has been right in assuming that the road to a new East-West relationship lies through the rearmament process.
But the other side of that coin is that if Reagan does achieve at Geneva the framework for a new and better relationship, then the time would come when he might feel he had completed his own presidential agenda.
He has carried his domestic programs as far as they can go. He has cut taxes and slowed the welfare state as much as is politically possible. He does not need to stay out his second four years to establish his domestic counterrevolution.
But Mr. Reagan is only at the beginning of the big test of his foreign policy. His niche in world history has yet to be filled. If nothing comes of the November summit, he will have little foreign-policy reason to sit through the full second four years. If something does come of it, and if he becomes an important peacemaker, he would presumably want to stay with the job until it is substantially finished. But that could happen before the end of the four years.
So we turn next to Moscow. They know at the Kremlin that Reagan does have a foreign policy agenda. The two capitals have been working on the preliminaries for the November summit since former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko visited Washington and talked to the President on Sept. 27 of last year.
The question is whether the Soviets can get a better deal from Reagan in 1985 than they might from whoever comes after him at the White House in 1989. It is a reasonable guess that they will decide to try dealing with Mr. Reagan. Here are some of the reasons that may influence their thinking.
No one can possibly foresee who will be the next president of the United States if Reagan completes his full second term. It will be George Bush if Reagan retires before the term is out.
If Mr. Bush takes office, he will undoubtedly be a candidate to succeed himself. He would not prudently get into difficult negotiations with the Soviets while getting ready to run. That would be politically unwise.
It follows that if there is to be substantial progress in East-West relations before 1989, it will have to be done between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev, beginning November. If the Soviets pass up that, the present opportunity would mean postponing such talks until 1989 at least. There is no knowing whether the President at that time will want to negotiate, or on what terms.
A lot of advance work has already gone into the preparations for the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting. Reagan is known to be ready to deal. He has much to gain and nothing to lose by dealing in November. His anti-communist record gives him the same freedom to deal that Richard Nixon had with the Chinese in 1972. It is by no means certain that the next American president will enjoy any such freedom as Reagan enjoys right now.
Thus, if the Soviets are interested in an easing of East-West relations, this is probably the best chance they will have during the next four years. If they pass up this chance, they may wait a long time for one as promising. But do they know this?
We will probably have to wait until November for the answer. Meanwhile it is merely routine that the arms negotiators are holding for November news of any major change in the positions of the two sides. There are hints of new flexibility in the positions of both. But if there is to be any breakthrough in arms control, we may be sure that the decisive news of it will be held back for the great men to announce in November.