What you need to know about the SUMMIT TALKS. Soviets, Americans look for a workable relationship

THE superpowers are groping for a way to put their relationship on a stable, constructive basis. That, in essence, is the objective of the coming summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Since the time of World War II, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union have been characterized by sharp swings. The spirit of cooperation during the war was followed by cold war confrontation as the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin solidified communist regimes in Eastern Europe and challenged Western interests in Berlin and elsewhere.

Then came efforts to warm up the atmosphere, which were undermined by Western and Soviet actions. These included US espionage activities that resulted in the 1960 U-2 spyplane incident and the Soviet initiative that precipitated the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. '70s `d'etente' gives way to '80s chill

By the early '70s the tensions had lifted and the era of ``d'etente'' was born. New hopes arose for peace and cooperation. Yet by the early 1980s the chill was back, with disappointments on both sides. Americans watched the Soviets build up their military power; extend their military and political influence in third-world areas; and march into Afghanistan.

The Soviets nursed their own set of disappointments, including US failure to ratify the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), Congress's refusal to give the Soviet Union most-favored-nation trade status, and a general reluctance to treat the USSR as an equal power.

Today relations are cool, although far from the level of a new cold war. President Reagan, determined to rebuild America's military strength and preoccupied by his domestic agenda, relegated superpower ties to the back burner during his first term.

Mr. Reagan's strong anticommunism and antipathy for the Soviet Union led to sharp words about the ``evil empire,'' a characterization that pleased his conservative supporters but did little to ingratiate him in Moscow's eyes.

However, despite the continuing challenge of Soviet actions -- such as the 1983 shooting down of a Korean airliner -- Reagan, like previous US presidents, understands that the US-Soviet relationship is too critical to let deteriorate. Incentives to renew a dialogue

Neither side believes the other would use its awesome nuclear power to launch a military attack; the danger lies in miscalculations made in the heat of confrontation over some regional conflict.

Both leaders are seen to have incentives to renew a dialogue and try to come to an understanding about how to manage their relationship. Mr. Reagan desires to leave a legacy of having improved the chances for long-term peace. Having presided over a substantial military buildup, he feels he goes to the summit from a position of strength.

His tough posture and conservative credentials ensure that any agreements reached in Geneva will get a favorable hearing in Congress.

For his part, Mr. Gorbachev is not about to compromise the Kremlin's goals. Longtime Soviet experts believe he is determined to reestablish the image of the Soviet Union as a superpower able to play a global role of ``equality'' with the United States and to damage the US interests wherever it can do so with impunity.

But, faced with a lackluster Soviet economy and other problems, the Soviet leader is seen as needing a breather to concentrate his energies on the home front.

An eventual arms control agreement and an improvement of ties with the United States would give him such a respite. It would also save Moscow the immense resources required to keep up with the US in an accelerated arms race. Distrust runs deep

The leaders go to Geneva with few illusions. Washington is bending over backward not to raise expectations or, if progress is made, to generate the kind of euphoria that followed the Nixon-Brezhnev summit of 1972.

The fact is that distrust between the superpowers runs deep. It predates the Bolshevik Revolution and is rooted in history and in the cultural, political, and economic differences between the two countries.

Even Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century predicted that the two were destined to conflict with each other -- the one representing a free society in which the individual controls the state and the other springing from an oriental tradition where the state is supreme. Until a different system and values evolve in the Soviet Union, the adversarial relationship will persist.

But necessity dictates that the two work out a modus vivendi to reduce the risks of military confrontation and build a workable relationship that fosters cooperation.

This is what the Geneva summit will seek to achieve.

THIS summit meeting, more than most of its forerunners, revolves around two strong personalities. And, not unlike the summit between Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy, its outcome may be determined as much by how the two leaders interact as by the substance of the issues.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has burst on the scene as a vigorous, relatively young, articulate leader. He is adept at using the Western news media to convey that he is reasonable and well informed. He holds press conferences. He travels abroad with his wife Raisa, an attractive, highly capable woman who has sparked almost as much press coverage as her husband.

If the new man in the Kremlin is a marked contrast to his elderly, stodgy predecessors, he does not necessarily represent a dramatic generational break with the past.

Mr. Gorbachev came up through the party system, skillfully allying himself with men of power who could promote his career. He is a confirmed Marxist-Leninist. He may want to make the Soviet system work better, but he is not seeking to dismantle it.

Still, Gorbachev goes to Geneva having impressed the Soviet people with his more-open style and common touch. He has consolidated his power at the center with uncommon speed and self-assurance. He has shaken up the Moscow bureaucracy and launched drives to increase work discipline and reduce alchoholism. And he is tackling Ronald Reagan on his own -- without the benefit of foreign affairs veteran Andrei Gromyko at his side.

While Mr. Gorbachev is barely launched in his job as No. 1 in the Politburo, President Reagan is in the final years of his successful political career. MORE{et

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.