As hopes fade for an early agreement on strategic arms, the Reagan administration is stressing a superpower summit agenda that focuses on the broad range of issues in East-West relations. ``Virtually no one feels there is any realistic chance for a START [strategic arms] agreement by then,'' says a State Department official, ``so now there is somewhat of a shift of focus to the broad agenda, including regional issues and human rights.''
White House officials clearly do not want it perceived that the summit, to be held in Moscow May 29 to June 2, will be successful only if there is an arms agreement.
``For so long the [US-Soviet] relationship was driven by that one topic,'' says Thomas Griscom, White House communications director. ``What we're trying to do is stress the fact that arms reduction remains on the agenda but that on other items as well the President is making progress. We should not get into the position of gauging the importance of a summit by arms control alone.''
At the same time, White House officials emphasize that the arms agenda is not disappearing from the screen and will be important at the meeting.
``I still think there will be progress on START and there will be enough progress for arms control to be the main focus of the summit,'' says White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. ``It's still the overriding issue that the peoples of the world care about ... and there will probably be a statement on the progress made.''
During the four-day summit, say US officials, working groups will continue to try to clear away roadblocks to a treaty. It cannot be ruled out that President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will provide the catalyst needed to spark significant progress, officials say.
Despite optimism voiced by senior US arms officials earlier this spring, the administration appears to be facing difficulties on virtually all arms fronts.
The signed INF (intermediate forces) Treaty is embroiled in controversy in the Senate and may not be ratified by the time of the summit in late May. In such case, the President and Mr. Gorbachev would not be able to exchange instruments of ratification as planned.
In spite of the uncertainty, however, White House officials are maintaining an upbeat posture while they press the Senate for action. ``We probably will have instruments to ratify on INF,'' Mr. Fitzwater says.
On the issue of nuclear testing, the two sides had hoped to sign technical protocols on verification procedures, which would pave the way for the President to submit two unratified test-ban treaties to the Senate for approval. But jointly approved experiments to test such procedures will not take place until July.
Another area of disagreement concerns the President's Strategic Defense Initiative. The two sides have yet to resolve the issue of what US space projects are permitted under the Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, an issue that must be settled before a START accord can be signed.
After their recent meeting in Moscow, US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze indicated that little progress had been made in the arms discussions. A joint communiqu'e said simply that both sides would make efforts to complete a START agreement ``within the shortest possible time.''
Given the many sticking points on arms, say US officials, the summit may be wrapped in the general theme of the importance of normalizing Soviet-American relations. President Reagan seemed to lay the groundwork for such a thrust last week when he said that relations have taken ``a dramatic turn, into a period of realistic engagement.''
Reagan's speech, which also criticized the Soviet Union on Afghanistan and other regional issues as well as human rights, drew fire from Gorbachev, however. At the end of the Shultz-Shevardnadze talks, the general secretary voiced his displeasure, stating: ``Maybe we're marking time.'' Before leaving the Soviet Union, Mr. Shultz sought to downplay Gorbachev's irritation. He suggested the comments may have been an overreaction to the Reagan speech.