MANY people might be tempted to shrug off the coming US-Soviet summit in Moscow as Mikhail Gorbachev's going-away bash for President Reagan. That would be a mistake. The summit process is valuable in its own right. And the weight accorded this meeting should be based more on the reams it speaks about the evolution of attitudes shaping US-Soviet relations than on the tonnage of signed documents.
Dig below the surface and it becomes apparent that the summit is affixing the notion of realism to the map the two nations use to guide their dealings with each other.
Mr. Reagan once denounced the Soviet Union as an ``evil empire.'' This week he travels to the very heart of that empire. This says more about the public's attitude about ideological presidents than about changes in Reagan's personal views of the Soviet Union. Polls consistently show that Americans are suspicious of the Soviet leadership. But surveys also show that while the public wants a militarily strong United States, it prefers that its leaders deal with the Soviets via diplomats' briefcases rather than battle tanks.
In addition, the US is undergoing a broad transition in leadership. Fewer of its top politicians experienced the tumultuous decades leading up to World War II and the impact those events had on attitudes toward the USSR.
Similar changes are under way in the Soviet Union, arguably more abruptly. Soviet leadership has changed hands three times since 1980. The grip of power is slipping from the hands of men whose politics were shaped by that nation's civil war, by global depression, and world war. They are being replaced by people who came of political age during the postwar period of global economic growth, spreading prosperity, and increasing technological sophistication, much of which bypassed their country. They realize that bulging arsenals alone will not earn them the long-term international influence they seek. It is hard to present yourself as an alternative political and economic model to that of the West when all you have to display to developing countries is a bumper crop of ICBMs and long lines at the sparsely stocked meat counter.
The summit focuses attention on these changes in attitude, expressed by the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Moscow's willingness to reduce nuclear arsenals, and other actions designed to stabilize Soviet relations with the West and reduce costly ties to some ``fraternal'' socialist countries. This gives Mr. Gorbachev the opportunity to concentrate more fully on restructuring the Soviet economy.
If nurtured by both sides, the growing maturity of US-Soviet relations - the summit's true substance - will benefit the world as a whole.
It also underlines the importance of getting the American economy on a surer footing than that offered by budget deficits, deep trade deficits, and a mountain of international debt. Soviet appreciation is apparently growing for the value of a vibrant economy to national security and international influence. In the United States, that view seemed to take a back seat to Reagan's defense buildup. The next administration should give it more careful attention.