PRESIDENT George Bush will meet Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on Dec. 2, having defied the tradition of past American presidents in the face of the developments in Eastern Europe. He has declined the grand gesture. He has not made ringing statements, insisted on declaring victory from the remnants of the Berlin Wall, or beyond the long-planned meeting with Polish leader Lech Walesa, has not received token East Europeans at the White House. Such gestures are not easy for American leaders to avoid, for they are tied closely to US politics. They are often related far more to the building of a popular image for re-election purposes than they are to constructive interventions in international affairs. Foreign events become the backdrop for reaching the American audience. And every president is conscious of actions of predecessors, such as President John Kennedy's ``Ich bin ein Berliner'' speech at the Berlin Wall in 1963, and does not want to suffer by comparison.
The pressures for such steps on the part of a president are undoubtedly greater today than ever. The freeing of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, a major objective of US policy for 40 years has come to pass. The Berlin Wall, symbol of the ``Iron Curtain,'' has begun to crumble. Demands for democracy fill the air from Yerevan to Leipzig.
Prudence and restraint at such times are not popular responses to an American population conditioned by the earlier dominant role of the United States in world affairs and by the spirit of competitiveness in the East-West rivalry.
But grand gestures carry risks, especially when events are moving as they are now. Although the United States has a significant role and a deep interest in the security of Europe, today's developments must be worked out in a European context. Any effort by a US president to thrust the United States to the center of the stage could imply a degree of involvement this country is neither willing or able to undertake. This is not a time when it is in either European or American interests to suggest that Washington will assume the major responsibility for the political reconstruction of Europe - as it did in 1945.
Strident declarations of victory by an American leader could also add to the difficulties of Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet president is clearly playing a central role in relaxing the restraints on the nations of Eastern Europe. His policies cannot be popular among many of his colleagues in Moscow. Western actions and words that look back to the defeat of socialism rather than forward to what will follow would undoubtedly make the Russian leader's problems more difficult. His recent statements have made this clear.
The moves that President Bush has made recognize the interests and the proper role of the United States without incurring the risks of overblown gestures. Whether by luck, instinct, or advance intelligence, the President arranged the ship-board meeting off Malta with President Gorbachev as the recent events in East Germany began to unfold. This meeting recognizes the indisputable role of the United States as the corner stone of Western defense. President Bush is thus in a position to build his response to events in the light of this pre-summit session.
At the same time the US leader has been careful to emphasize that he cannot speak for or negotiate for the Europeans and that consultation with Washington's NATO partners is essential. From the beginning of his term, he has endeavored to build relationships with Chancellor Kohl of West Germany and President Mitterand of France, two key Europeans in the current scene.
The US responsibility as one of the four administering powers in Berlin has also been recognized, and US ambassador Vernon Walters has met with his Soviet counterpart in Berlin. This important channel at the center of the action remains open; the fact that the forces of the United States and the Soviet Union still face each other along the dividing line in Germany cannot be forgotten.
Some critics of President Bush, dissatisfied with his approach so far, ascribe his caution to a fear of the right-wing in the Republican party or to apprehension over an acknowledgement of change that would lessen domestic support for a strong defense budget. Such factors may be present, but it is at least equally just to suggest that the President, with his past foreign policy experience, recognizes that this is a time for prudence and thoughtful action, despite the demands and expectations for those dramatic gestures common to presidents in the past.