THE Soviet Union has been fast off the mark with a major propaganda campaign paving the way for the November summit. Mikhail Gorbachev has given Time magazine a carefully orchestrated interview and titillated a delegation of United States senators with hints of Soviet flexibility. Other Soviet officials have been working the American press. The line is uniform: on the one hand a hand-wringing lament over Ronald Reagan's intransigence; on the other a wistful hope that at Geneva he can be made to see the error of his ways.
The Soviet goal is clever, to wrest significant military concessions from President Reagan, and do it by means of a public relations campaign rather than giving anything tangible in return. It is an old tactic: to get something without giving anything for it.
The President should not fall for it. Several potential pitfalls confront him.
One is that the November summit conference in Geneva should become a competition of charm. Ronald Reagan is an immensely attractive leader in one-on-one situations. He has charmed a string of foreign leaders and that, on occasion, has been useful in establishing better relationships between countries.
Mr. Gorbachev, too, has been able to turn on the charm, wooing politically such formidable leaders as Margaret Thatcher of Britain. But charm and style are no substitute for substance. What we have to find out is whether there is anything behind the Soviet public relations campaign, whether when pushed they are prepared to match concession with concession and strike a deal or two in the interests of both countries.
A great deal of the substantive discussion will revolve around arms control. It is said that Mr. Reagan wants to go down in history as a peacemaker. The question is: What kind of peace, and at what price? Some would argue that by military firmness he has kept the peace pretty well during his first 41/2 years in office. Cutbacks in that strength should not be traded away without matching cutbacks on the Soviet side. And any deal with the Soviets must be one we can monitor and verify.
The zeal for a deal on arms control should also not dilute our quest for a broader understanding with the Soviets. We need more than a cutback in arms from a country that remains ready to pillage Afghanistan, support Marxist insurgencies in Central America, and meddle in the Middle East.
As Richard Nixon says in a perceptive new Foreign Affairs piece on superpower summitry: ``An agreement reducing arms but not linked to restraints on political conduct would not contribute to peace. If political differences escalate into war, it is no comfort to know that each side has the capacity to destroy the other only two times rather than twenty times.''
Another danger is that President Reagan will become a captive of rising public expectations about the summit.
Even if the chemistry between Reagan and Gorbachev should turn out to be good in Geneva, it is unrealistic to assume that a trusting and transformed Gorbachev would return to his country intent on shifting its policies away from their present course.
There is no hint that basic Soviet interests have changed under Gorbachev. While Soviet and American leaders may clink glasses, and their peoples may get to know each other a little better, the fact is that their societies, their economic systems, their ideologies, and their national policies are very different.
It will be very damaging if Reagan goes into the Geneva summit under pressure from an American public that thinks these differences can be resolved there.
The differences will remain. The purpose of Geneva is to find out whether better arrangements can be made that will prevent these differences from exploding into mutual self-destruction.
John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.