Geneva's promissory notes

MUCH of the potential benefit of the Geneva superpower summit, particularly as regards arms control, remains promissory. The call by President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev for ``accelerated negotiations'' in the three-part arms talks, ongoing in the same Geneva setting, indicates that the intensity of negotiations should pick up. There could well be a new seriousness in those discussions. After nearly five hours of one-on-one talks with Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Reagan must be thoroughly alert to the trade-off problem -- deep cuts in offensive missiles, which the American President wants, in exchange for constraints on

the Strategic Defensive Initiative, demanded by the Soviet leader -- even though Reagan maintained his public position on his SDI program.

With the agreement on further summits, in the United States next year and the Soviet Union the year after, the presumption is that the two leaders have in mind timetables and objectives. An arms accord in 1986, declared on American soil, would help Republicans in next fall's US elections; similarly, GOP continuity in the White House would be greatly helped by a good-spirited, achievements-backed summit in the Soviet Union in 1987. This is mentioned not to belittle the motivation for the timetable, but t o suggest that the timetable itself offers an inducement for accord: An unfruitful or canceled summit would bear a corresponding political penalty.

The immediate benefits of the summit are self-evident. Five hours of frank, at times sharp, discourse is a clear advance on the preceding five years of harsh rhetoric. It was good, on balance, for both leaders to have had a chance to look into each other's eyes, to sound out the nuances of rebuttal, on issues where confrontation had ruled too long. The chief reservation here, that misunderstandings could later arise over unrecorded or misinterpreted statements made in private, is no small one. History s hows this has happened before. But one would hardly want to keep a president from a form of discussion in which he feels most comfortable.

After the ceremonial close of the summit, the signing of a cultural and education exchange agreement, Mr. Gorbachev treated the world to an hour-long ``press conference,'' which was actually a monologue of his views of the summit. He acknowledged the ``tremendous responsibility'' the two leaders had to accept in a world ``under the threat of nuclear death.'' He denied any Soviet ambition for superiority over its rival in security matters. From parity, the two sides could reduce arms levels on a mutual b asis, he suggested. At the same time, however, he repeatedly warned that the US ``star wars'' program would extend the arms race to outer space and that the scale of rivalry would grow ``immeasurably.'' The Soviets could not afford to fall behind in such a race, he indicated, mentioning vague but ominous new Soviet ways of responding. Absent was any ideological firebranding; all the same, Gorbachev put the fireside summitry in the context of continuing rivalry and competing interests.

Apparently neither side came to the summit ready to compromise on arms on the spot. Nor was it immediately clear whether movement had been started on regional disputes like Afghanistan and the Middle East. The full range of positive fallout in East-West relations -- in communications, sports, scientific exchanges -- remains to unfold.

In these terms, the summit was indeterminate. Indeterminacy can be useful, where it implies potential for progress that is seized upon. In the US, however, the debate over SDI will likely intensify: Advocates of the full program will argue that the President's hand should not be weakened (ironically, at the same time they profess SDI is not a bargaining chip); advocates of restricted research and development will contend that the President is letting slip by a historic opportunity to scale back the stak es in nuclear exchange.

For our part, although the immediate fruits look modest indeed, the summit must be accorded a clear plus. The superpowers' differences and competition run deep. Yet an attempt was made to replace intransigence with intelligence. The greater effort lies ahead: weighing each disagreement against the larger good of maintaining a constructive process for securing world peace.

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