THE Leningrad Hotel, where the dramatic finale of the world chess championships is taking place, boasts a handsome public auditorium. But every water tap in the hotel spews forth a smelly solution that guests are advised not to drink. America's monumental trade deficit took a big turn for the better in August. But the improvement didn't come on the vital export side. The American economy is still sputtering. Machine tool orders are down.
Some Soviet factories are beginning to install computer-driven robots. But plans for maintenance of the automatons, (which were first given their name in eastern Europe, by Czech playwright Carel Capek) are unproven and suspect. Soviet factories trail far behind their Japanese and US counterparts in robotics.
Back in America, programs to leapfrog the Japanese in computer chip design have not yet succeeded. Not long ago the 21-company research group, Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC), which was formed to compete with Japan's effort to dominate the computer/information market, announced that its founding president would depart for a new executive post. There are rumors that the 21 firms in the consortium have not all sent their best research scientists to man the jointly-funded MCC labs -- despite the unrelenting efforts of the departing chief executive officer, Adm. Bobby Inman (ret.).
These vignettes of superpower weakness don't mean we are seeing a Potemkin village on both sides of the curtain. The United States and the USSR are still powerful players on the world scene. Of the two, the US has by far the more sophisticated, flexible, and resilient economy.
The symbolic problems cited above serve, rather, to illustrate why Messrs. Reagan and Gorbachev share a need to avert the costs of another arms race.
In the past year and a half Mr. Gorbachev has verbally outlined a series of steps to modernize the Soviet economy and loosen restraints on its trade with the rest of the world. He has jawboned for internal economic reform. He has talked up retooling of most basic industries, and faster introduction of high technology to their production lines. He has pictured improved relations with China, Japan, and Germany as well as the US. His team has talked about joining the World Bank, GATT, and the International Monetary Fund. His officials have recently loosened the reins on state trading companies and hinted to Japanese, US, Finnish, and British industrialists that Moscow would like to explore the idea of joint enterprises.
But none of this jawboning can translate into reality without internal shifts of resources, creation of capital, increased trade, or increased borrowing. Already there are signs that some of the new Gorbachev team are talking of stretched out reform and slower change. To avoid seeing his program unwind into the kind of economic lethargy that befell the once-robust Brezhnev economic growth, Gorbachev needs relief from an overhanging arms budget race. And he needs the appearance of renewed momentum and leadership. A successful summit could bring both.
For Reagan, it is a commonplace to point out that the referee is about to issue the two-year warning. His time as quarterback is growing short. The leverage he can wrest from the great arms buildup of his first six years may be passing its maximum as Congress is seen to be getting increasingly querulous about defense appropriations. So this may be the last window in which to extract full value from the scheduled two further summits with Gorbachev.
A lot of attention has been paid in recent days to the question of ``who blinked'' on the Zakharov-Daniloff-Orlov exchange. That's an intriguing but not very useful question.
In that affair, both Reagan and Gorbachev talked tough for home consumption and then had to back off in order to strike a deal. That has unfortunately robbed Reagan of the always useful tactic of reassuring his right wing that he will bargain tough as he seeks a compromise with his opponent. That tactic was used and deflated in the Zakharov-Daniloff affair. It will be hard to repair it in time to use it on its intended audience before the main show.
Some attention has also been paid recently to the fact that the Reagan administration professed all spring and summer not to want a summit too close to the midterm congressional elections -- for fear of appearing to manipulate the voting. Now the White House is going to get a low-risk ``planning summit,'' with lots of photo opportunities and no concrete expectations to be dashed, smack in the midst of the campaign windup. That is a byproduct of the timing squeeze that was heightened by the Daniloff affair.
The timing may thus be suspect. But that's no reason to abort the process now started. It's too important to too many nations -- and too many faltering sections of the world economy.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.