THE Bush administration says that the December summit between the president and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will merely involve ``interim, informal'' talks. The meeting, said Bush, will ``deepen our respective understanding of each other's view.'' However, to merely seek to ``deepen'' both leaders' ``understanding'' would waste the summit. With the Soviet Union facing an economic crisis, political discontent, and ethnic conflict, and its Eastern European satellites hurtling away from the communist orbit, the post-World War II system is collapsing, making the superpower presence in Europe obsolete. We need to begin discussing how to reshape the entire European order.
Adding urgency to the task of reforming the cold war alliance system is the perceived fragility of Mikhail Gorbachev's rule. There is substantial disagreement, both within and without the administration, over how likely Gorbachev is to succeed. And reports are circulating that the Soviet leader intends to use the summit to warn President Bush that he may have to slow the democratization process as his nation's problems worsen.
It would be a mistake to tie the entire future of US-USSR relations to the survival of one individual. But that doesn't mean that relations cannot be improved significantly and quickly. Indeed, the fact that Gorbachev's future is uncertain makes it even more important to push for major agreements that no Soviet leadership coalition would likely reverse.
Probably the most important, and most permanent, change in Soviet policy would be the withdrawal of the Red Army from Eastern Europe. Treaties can be broken, tank production increased, and nuclear missiles reintroduced. But once Soviet soldiers were out of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, they would not likely be invited back. And if they weren't invited back, any attempt to reintroduce them would probably lead to war. That is a price no Soviet leader would want to pay.
The quid pro quo for Soviet withdrawal would have to be an American pullout. But that would be a benefit rather than a cost for the US, simultaneously reducing the nation's defense burden and eliminating a dangerous tripwire. Indeed, with the military budget likely to continue a downward trend - by 1994 it is expected to be roughly one-third below the level once projected by former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger - the US will have trouble fielding the forces necessary to maintain all of its current foreign commitments.
The Soviets could, of course, reject mutual disengagement, since withdrawal would reduce the Politburo's influence in Eastern Europe. But should the USSR say no, it would be blamed for the continued militarization of Europe.
Anyway, Moscow might agree. Gorbachev has already measurably loosened Moscow's reins over the satellite states, accepting a non-communist government in neighboring Poland. Moreover, with Hungarian minister of state Imre Pozsgay calling for the dissolution of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the USSR may soon face the humiliation of a non-communist Hungary unilaterally declaring its neutrality and requesting the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Moscow would be better off trading a pullout now for a simultaneous American exit, especially since the USSR's economic problems will continue to give it an incentive to downsize its forces. Even if a continent-wide disengagement proposal failed initially, Moscow might agree to more limited cuts that would naturally turn into a full withdrawal in the future.
Though disengagement would guarantee European security - a ``Finlandized'' Eastern Europe would provide a buffer protecting the Soviet Union and Western Europe alike - it would also raise the so-called German question, already heightened by the recent mass exodus from East Germany and the opening of the border. But a reunited Germany is more likely to be neutralist than aggressive, a prospect that would threaten no one.
Indeed, the combined German states would be no more likely to launch a war of conquest than would France, which under Napoleon sought to rule all of Europe and Russia. Even Soviet officials appear to recognize that the Bundeswehr is unlikely to fight its way to Moscow again.
The rapid change and instability in Eastern Europe and the USSR makes the world a dangerous place, but also one full of opportunities. Instead of wasting the upcoming summit just getting acquainted with Gorbachev, President Bush should propose pulling the troops out of Europe.