Things that don't happen can often tell us a lot about what is happening. Last week (July 25) President Reagan was addressing a conference of ``captive nations.'' He had a prepared script with the usual litany for such occasions of Soviet misdeeds, past, present, and future. Those paragraphs that contained criticism of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, were dropped from the speech.
The explanation came three days later.
White House aides said arrangements appeared to be in order for a meeting in Washington between the United States and Soviet foreign ministers in mid-September, just before the convening of the UN General Assembly. (The Soviets have since agreed to such a meeting.)
The same White House sources expressed an assumption that the meeting between George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze will clear the way for a summit to be held in the US before the end of the year at which an arms control agreement banning intermediate-range nuclear weapons will be concluded.
The omission from Mr. Reagan's speech does not prove that such an agreement will actually be signed before the end of the year. But it does show that there has been a policy agreement at the White House that the Soviets have offered, or appear to have offered, terms that Washington can accept.
This in itself reflects a victory for those at the White House who want to make such an agreement with the Soviets the centerpiece of the last 17 months of the Reagan presidency that, otherwise, might have little to show for those 17 months.
In other words the big news of the past week seems to be that, having already committed himself to the literally mine-strewn waters of the Gulf (one tanker holed already), Mr. Reagan is also expecting to go into the figuratively mine-strewn waters of decisive diplomacy with the Soviets. He seems to be headed for an exercise in East-West d'etente on a set time schedule, which violates one of the main rules for dealing with the Soviets.
Mr. Reagan is on a tight time schedule. He has to leave the White House in January of 1989. He will be heavily preoccupied with politics during 1988. If he is actually going to do conclusive business with the Soviets, it has to be done promptly. There are deadlines.
The Soviets have no deadlines.
That gives them the equivalent of an extra card in the negotiations that were speeded up at Geneva.
There, of course, the preparatory work is far from finished. There remains unresolved the question of the 72 Pershing 1-A missiles that belong to the West German government, but whose warheads belong to the US. The US position is that is will not bargain over the weapons of its NATO allies.
Washington refuses to bargain away any French or British weapons. The Soviets have accepted that. But they still want a solid agreement that those old Pershing 1-As in West Germany will never be fitted with the nuclear warheads that the Americans control, or be modernized, or replaced with more modern weapons.
And it needs to be remembered that there is still a strong section inside the White House that wants no agreement with the Soviets about anything, and that is bound to obstruct as much as possible any movement toward even an agreement limited to intermediate-range weapons.
Also, the most that seems reasonably to be possible so far would be the ban on the intermediates. Untouched by the latest news is the question of cutting back on the numbers of the long-range intercontinental weapons, which are the main deterrents in both the Soviet and US arsenals.
The key question about those bigger weapons is whether Mr. Reagan is as adamant as he has always sounded about never giving way on his Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars'').
On SDI, Mr. Reagan has been as stubborn as on taxes.
He says he will never agree to a tax raise.
He says he will never give up his effort to reach for a defensive shield against nuclear weapons. Is it conceivable that he will compromise on both taxes and SDI during the last 17 months of his presidency?
If so, then there might be a big arms control package to be signed when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev comes to the US later in the year - if he does.
One remembers Jimmy Carter negotiating the unratified SALT II Treaty and then having it blown up by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But one can remember also Richard Nixon pushing ahead with ``d'etente'' right through the anguish of Watergate.
Meanwhile, it is worth remembering also that if an arms control agreement, even if limited to intermediates, is apparently almost in sight it is because Ronald Reagan and his European allies held their course over deployment of the Pershing and cruise missiles in the European theater.
There was a long struggle to get those missiles deployed in answer to the Soviet SS-20 missiles. Had there been no such counterdeployment, there would be no chance now to lift from the heads of Western Europe the weight of the 272 Soviet SS-20 missiles (each with three warheads) that the Soviets first deployed in 1977.
The counterdeployment of 278 Pershing and cruise missiles began in 1983. European governments were challenged through 1984 and 1985 by some of the loudest, biggest, and most assertive street demonstrations of the century. The Soviets were happy to encourage these protests. The governments stood up to the demonstrations and persisted in the counterdeployment.
The payoff seems to be in sight. The Soviets failed to prevent the counterdeployment. Now they appear to have reached the point of realizing that the only way to end that deployment is by giving up those SS-20 missiles that were the cause of the decision to build and deploy the Pershing and cruise weapons.