THE President's disclosure that he consults frequently with Richard Nixon as he prepares for the summit tells us a lot about both men. For the former President, dishonored by Watergate, it was another major move on his climb back to political respectability.
Mr. Reagan told a questioner that he regarded Mr. Nixon as ``most knowledgeable on international affairs'' and that he was listening to Nixon's advice on how best ``to find a way to deal practically'' with Mikhail Gorbachev in November.
Reagan may have indirectly disclosed a lot about his own thinking. By examining what Nixon is writing about ``Superpower Summitry'' in the fall issue of Foreign Affairs, one might gain insights into Reagan's own summitry.
Summits, Nixon writes, ``will contribute to the cause of peace, however, only if both leaders recognize that tensions between the two nations are due not to the fact that we do not understand each other but to the fact that we do understand that we have diametrically opposed ideological and geopolitical interests.'' Reagan, with his longstanding ideological opposition to the Soviets, could have written this.
Nixon adds: ``With one achievable goal in common -- survival -- the purpose of summit meetings is to develop rules of engagement that could prevent our profound differences from bringing us into armed conflict that could destroy us both.''
And, he says, ``We must disabuse ourselves from the start of the much too prevalent view that if only the two leaders, as they get to know each other, could develop a new `tone' or a new `spirit' in their relationship, our problems would be solved and tensions reduced.''
At his last press conference Reagan seemed to be in tune with this Nixon opinion of the coming summit.
Nixon points out that the spirit of Geneva in 1955, of Camp David in 1959, of Vienna in 1961, and of Glassboro in 1967 ``each produced a brief improvement in the atmosphere, but no significant progress on resolving major issues.''
Nixon asserts that the ``real danger'' for the United States is not destruction by war with the Soviets but, instead, ``surrender to nuclear coercion,'' and that this can only be averted by negotiating an arms control pact that will prevent the Soviets from continuing to move along the road to ``inevitable Soviet superiority.''
Here, he says that ``what is most urgent is to remove the threat of the SS-18s and the new ICBMs, the SS-24 and SS-25, which are designed not to attack our cities in retaliation for an attack on the Soviet Union but for a decisive first strike against our missile sites.''
At this point, Nixon underscores the importance of Reagan's maintaining the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). ``Without it,'' he says, ``the Soviet Union would have no incentive to limit its offensive weapons.'' He says the President ``is correct on insisting that research on all aspects of the SDI is not negotiable, both because a ban on research is not verifiable and because if there is even a remote chance to develop a total population defense it should be a priority goal of our defense establishme nt.''
Here Nixon perhaps reveals what may be Reagan's ultimate position on SDI: ``Deployment [of SDI],'' he says, ``as distinguished from research, for defense of our missile fields, is the ultimate bargaining chip. . . . We should agree to limit our deployment of defensive weapons only if the Soviets significantly reduce and limit their offensive weapons. The choice is Gorbachev's. Either the Soviets cut back on their offensive forces or we will deploy defensive forces to match their buildup.''
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.