The meeting in Moscow this coming week ought to be called the economic summit. It won't be so called. There will not be much, if any, talk about economic matters, but economics played a central role in making the summit a reality. And the consequences can be most important in the economic area.
The real question in the background of the drama of another summit is whether a modern man named Mikhail Gorbachev can drag a reluctant Soviet Union out of economic lethargy and back into the broad stream of world economic advance.
The Revolution of 1917 broke Russia off from the mainstream of the world's economy. It has been an economic off-shore island ever since, revolving in its own orbit, living by a different rhythm, using different priorities. It has been a different world. Can it get back?
Nothing that Mr. Gorbachev and President Reagan can say to each other in Moscow will in itself make much difference. But the fact that they are meeting is important because it shows that Mr. Gorbachev is willing and able to pay a high price for a chance to get his country back into the mainstream of the modern world. He wants to do in these times what Peter the Great did in the 18th century. Peter went to Western Europe and brought back to Russia the technologies and the technicians that were launching the industrial revolution in England, Holland, France, and Germany.
From Peter to Lenin, Russian moved with Western Europe. It was a few paces behind. Rail traffic through from Moscow to Vladivostok came in 1891. That was 22 years after the rail link from New York to San Francisco was opened in 1869 with a golden spike. But when World War I began, the Russians were far enough along in industrial development to be able to build, and fly, airplanes as advanced as those in the West.
But then came the Revolution of 1917 and Russia went its own separate way, isolating itself from and then alienating the West. Its economy suffered and became sluggish. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power three years ago. He found himself running an establishment almost as out of date as the one Peter the Great took over some three hundred years ago.
He also inherited foreign policies which had frightened and alienated the outside world. He could not hope to tap modern Western technologies without first getting a reconciliation with the West. An essential step was to withdraw from Afghanistan. The invasion of that country in 1979 had revived the NATO alliance, antagonized China and, overall created a vast, informal anti-Soviet coalition of much of the world.
On schedule, Soviet troops began their withdrawal from Afghanistan on May 15. In Western eyes that legitimatized a trip to Moscow by the head of government of the West's most powerful country.
President Reagan could not have gone to Moscow without the beginning of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. That had to come first as evidence that the foreign policies of the Brezhnev era would be abandoned.
Moscow has also been quietly backing away from the Sandinistas of Nicaragua. This week the Sandinistas announced that they would continue to observe a truce with the contras. Talks resumed about withdrawal of Cuban troops and Soviet advisers from Angola.
The essential point is that Soviet behavior toward the outside world is going through a transformation. That process has gone far enough to justify Mr. Reagan's showing up in Moscow as a welcome guest. The visit gives expression to the fact that the West recognizes Moscow is changing its posture toward the world.
The immediate results of the visit will be negligible. We can expect the prospect of another summit to sign a strategic weapons treaty while Mr. Reagan is still President. Such a treaty is said to be so nearly ready that final agreement is possible during the next six months. Beyond that, there is little to be done in the way of actual business. But the long term results could be substantial.
One assumes that Mr. Gorbachev will, if he retains control in Moscow, slow down the rate of Soviet arms building. This in turn will justify further cuts in American arms building. The economies of both countries could be aided by a lower military burden.
But there is still some doubt as to how long Mr. Gorbachev will be in control in Moscow. The Reagan visit may help him against his many opponents who prefer something nearer to the Brezhnev way of life.