Superpowers, like supertankers, are hard to turn, hard to speed up, hard to stop. Especially if the crew is yelling conflicting advice to the man at the wheel. Both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev know this -- Mr. Gorbachev probably more to his frustration than Mr. Reagan. Gorbachev, as will be noted below, appears to be pulling back on his bold early reform plans, and may need a summit deal of some kind to revive his momentum.
It is quite clear that, despite frequent posturing, both leaders want a summit. Such a meeting remains a kind of navigational aim for each, even if the reason for steering toward it is different for the skippers of these huge ships of state.
This week, once more the northern half of the globe is contemplating the same intertwined trio of subjects it has scrutinized for nearly a month -- arms control, Summit II, and Daniloff/Zakharov.
Is there anything new to be said about the three issues? At this writing, only that US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and their principals are likely, somehow, to get beyond the false starts and find an answer to the Daniloff-Zakharov case that both sides can assert upholds their own claims. If so, that will unleash summit plans once more. And some kind of offensive missile reduction deal will then seem achievable.
While spectators wait to see if the three subjects can be unsnarled, a related and generally overlooked subject bears examination: Gorbachev's loss of momentum on economic reform.
Quietly, a lot of evidence is accumulating that indicates the Soviet superpower/tanker is not responding to the Communist Party general secretary's articulately proclaimed change of course. This may mean that Gorbachev's dominance within the collective leadership has weakened. More tellingly, it may mean that, down the line of command, even the new Gorbachev appointees to both party and management positions are lowering their sights as to how much economic reform and industrial retooling can or should be accomplished. There are signs that this network of political and economic lieutenants may be stretching out the timetable in which Gorbachev so boldly set forth Moscow's goals for the rest of the century. Ideologically conservative colleagues at a higher level may also be signaling a slower speed than Gorbachev had earlier indicated.
Evidence of such trimming back of aims and expectations doesn't have the high visibility of a Gorbachev television appearance or a party congress. But it is showing up in usually authoritative places.
Soviet economist and editor Abel Aganbegyan, whose reform ideas Gorbachev has often adapted, has been suggesting a slower speed for installing economic changes. His influential magazine, Economics and Organization of Industrial Production, recently has run articles insisting that radical reform, although necessary, cannot be carried out quickly. The process, says the magazine, must be very systematic, and may take many years.
Mr. Aganbegyan, according to a former Soviet economist now working in the US, has often been ``a barometer of Gorbachev's policies.''
Last month, the authoritative party theoretical journal, Kommunist, published an article on the national economy that took a very conservative view of industrial reforms. Its outlook resembled that of the pre-Gorbachev-Andropov era, calling for a very cautious approach.
Conservatism of outlook seems to have grown, in fact, in both the Politburo collective leadership and the White House staff. Gorbachev's actions and words are more conservative this year than last. Incumbent colleagues in the party, the KGB (the secret police), and the military are believed to be influencing this change.
Mr. Reagan has drawn on several more-conservative advisers, option-filterers, and speech writers to fill the gap left when such moderates as James Baker, Richard Darman, Martin Feldstein, and Robert McFarlane left the White House.
Paradoxically, Reagan acted more moderately this week, even after his public posture had toughened toward Moscow. Despite the blunt talk he directed at Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze last week, it is clear that he backs Mr. Shultz's persistent search for a sensible way out of the Daniloff impasse and back onto course toward a summit.
Reagan also appears to have softened the terms on which Moscow can buy a delay in testing of the US Strategic Defense Initiative program. The White House seems ready to agree to delay SDI (or ``star wars'') well into the next decade, if the Kremlin will agree to substantial offensive missile reductions with some type of verification included. Realistically, each side has long foreshadowed such a compromise. But pinning down exact numbers, dates, and methods of verification has been the subject of both internal and US-Soviet battles.
Underlying all the action are the two leaders' motivations toward a second summit. Mikhail Gorbachev seems more and more to need both summit prestige and some kind of arms deal to refresh his momentum. Ronald Reagan knows he hasn't too many more months left in which to gain a visible payoff from the big arms buildup he so adroitly pushed through successive congresses.