IT is symptomatic of the rancor and political tension that have afflicted US-Soviet relations during the past six years that the meager outcome of the Geneva summit is being hailed as a major success in Western Europe. Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, borrowing President Reagan's favorite metaphor, said that the President had ``gone the extra mile'' in relaunching a dialogue with the Soviet Union. Horst Ehmke, security policy spokesman for the West German Social Democratic Party, noted that the substance of the summit discussions exceeded his expectations.
Actually, in substance the outcome of the Geneva summit is about what the NATO allies (and Japan) expected. What surprised and pleased the allies was the tone of the talks between Mr. Reagan and Soviet party leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The unexpected good chemistry between the two leaders has fostered, at least in the immediate afterglow of Geneva, a somewhat exaggerated appraisal of the substance of their discussions. This suggests the first truism of the Geneva meeting, that the summit was a success bec ause it was not a failure.
The summit did not produce a framework for an offensive-defensive arms control agreement, as the allies had hoped. Nor did it result in an accord on intermediate-range weapons, although the two sides are much closer there. Furthermore, the President and General Secretary Gorbachev did not agree to extend the SALT II Treaty or to reaffirm their commitment to the ABM Treaty.
At the same time, the summit did not break down in a truculent exchange that would have plunged East-West relations into another freeze. The call for early progress on offensive strategic arms and Intermediate Nuclear Forces has reaffirmed the commitment of both the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Moreover, the agreements reached on cultural exchanges, air safety, the resumption of commercial air services, and the opening of new consulates symbolized the willingness of both sides to compromise their differences.
Even more comforting to the allies is the plan of Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev to meet next year and in 1987. This leads to a second summit truism: A continuing superpower dialogue between the heads of state offers the best assurance that East-West relations will not deteriorate into military conflict.
As far as US relations with the allies are concerned, President Reagan is in the catbird seat for the moment. He skillfully managed to initiate a negotiating process with the Soviets, despite wide divisions on major issues, and to defend Western interests without appearing intransigent or conciliatory. In the end, he may well prove to the same European publics that mistrusted his hard-line approach to East-West relations that a vigorous military posture and firm, resolute diplomacy are the best means fo r dealing with the Soviets.
Whether Mr. Reagan will demonstrate the flexibility to advance the process of normalization remains to be seen. If he refuses to place the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) on the negotiating table, or if he makes US-Soviet progress on regional conflicts a condition for an arms control agreement, he will meet resistance from allies.
The fireside amity of Geneva has created a dialectic of new expectations in Western Europe. Successful summits, to cite the third truism of the Reagan-Gorbachev meetings, create expectations of fulfillment.
In anticipation of the next year's summit, the allies can be expected to begin pressuring the administration after the new year to limit SDI to a research undertaking in exchange for Soviet reductions in heavy ICBMs. Mr. Reagan will be under similar pressure from congressional Republicans and Democrats, who will be looking to midterm elections.
Failure of the next superpower summit to produce a framework for an arms control agreement will not automatically erode alliance cohesion. Realistically, there is little that the European allies could do which would not also be detrimental to their security interests. But to the degree that US stonewalling, whether perceived or real, eventually provokes serious new tensions in relations with the Soviets, one could plausibly expect a concomitant deterioration in US-West European political relations , and, worse yet, in alliance security ties.
Hugh De Santis is a senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.