George Shultz seemed surprised, even perhaps a little dazed, when he emerged this week from a total of 14 hours in the citadel of the Soviets with their new top man, Mikhail Gorbachev, and his foreign policy lieutenant, Eduard Shevardnadze. For the secretary of state the experience was both a preliminary to the Geneva summit and a baptism of fire. He was learning first hand and on Soviet turf what the top men in Moscow are like and how they think.
It is the kind of experience that most men in Mr. Shultz's high position have had in their apprentice years. But Shultz has had to gain the experience while in office and on the verge of the most important negotiation of his career -- the Geneva summit.
It illustrates one of the major handicaps the Reagan administration labors under in its management of foreign policy. It has very few people in its top levels with experience in dealing with the outside world in general and with the Soviets in particular.
The fact that no agreements were reached during those 14 hours of hard verbal give and take inside the walls of the Kremlin is of no importance. No such results were in order or expected. This was a preliminary exercise, the main value of which was to make it possible for Mr. Shultz to prepare President Reagan for what will happen when the two top men meet in Geneva in less than two weeks.
It also underlined the unusual degree to which future history depends on how two men react to each other when that meeting occurs.
Thanks to this week's events, we are going to the summit with a secretary of state who will have done his homework. Diplomats are reminded of the unhappy time in 1983 when Mr. Shultz went to the Middle East in ignorance of the importance of Syria to a Lebanon settlement and of Syrian feelings about any arrangement to be made between Lebanon and Syria.
On that occasion, Mr. Shultz personally stitched together an agreement between Lebanon and Israel. It provided for a continuing Israeli military presence in southern Lebanon and Israeli access to Lebanese markets. He thought he could clear it with the Syrians by a trip to Damascus. The end was a diplomatic disaster built on almost total ignorance of Syria and its points of view.
Mr. Shultz learned from that experience that there is no point in moving into a diplomatic effort in ignorance of the points of view of the other people who are vitally interested. His role in the Middle East has ever since been played with a higher level of sophistication.
In effect, that 1983 experience was preparation for the trip to Moscow this week and for the coming trip to Geneva. Mr. Shultz came out of these Kremlin talks saying there had been a ``very vigorous discussion,'' that it had been ``frank and argumentative,'' and that ``the view from here of the United States is very different from what we think the reality is.''
In other words, Mr. Reagan will have at his elbow in Geneva a secretary of state who is in no doubt about Soviet views on key topics such as human rights and nuclear weapons. He has learned, not just from State Department experts who have served in Moscow, but from the top man in Moscow himself.
Putting yourself in the other man's place is the first preparation for a successful diplomatic meeting. There is no use trying to negotiate for something which is unavailable. The question is not whether Mr. Reagan can persuade the Soviets to do something he wants them to do. The problem is to know what is essential for them and then consider whether their essentials can be matched with some of our desirables.
Mr. Shultz returned to Washington much wiser and much more able to advise the President.
But now, it is up to the President himself. Does he seriously want an easier relationship with the Soviets, or is he still inclined to the preference of many of his advisers for policies aimed at trying to weaken the Soviet regime and someday bring it down.
It seems significant to that question that Mr. Reagan is taking Mr. Shultz with him -- not Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger or Mr. Weinberger's principal foreign policy adviser Richard Perle, who is the leading advocate in Washington of the no-dealings school.
Perhaps it is also significant that with the return of Mr. Shultz to Washington, one began to hear talk about other possible summits following Geneva. That sounds like the thinking of people who recognize that the most that can come from Geneva would be a decision by the principals to pursue their search for accommodations in further meetings.
Is it possible that someday Mr. Reagan himself might go to Moscow to experience for himself what the world looks like from the ramparts of the Kremlin?
That might be the most important thing that could actually emerge from Geneva.