THE uproar in Eastern Europe has inevitably transformed President Bush's weekend meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev into much more than a get-acquainted yachting expedition. Since announcing the Seaborne Summit, the White House has repeatedly stressed the informality of the meetings. No agreements will be concluded off Malta, say administration officials, nor will anything happen to surprise NATO allies.
But the pace of change in Eastern Europe has lent urgency to topics ranging from the pace of conventional arms control to superpower intentions in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia.
Even while insisting that no surprises will be forthcoming, Mr. Bush says of Mr. Gorbachev, ``We need to get in there and discuss his plans with him.... I'll talk about anything.''
Secretary of State James Baker III also upgraded the meeting's importance, outlining on Wednesday Bush's five-part agenda including the Soviet economy, Central America, Eastern Europe, arms control, and Soviet political reform. Soviet arms supplies to Nicaragua was the ``biggest obstacle'' to better relations, he said.
Still, the White House has budged only modestly in its efforts to make the Malta meetings as low key as possible. In maintaining that low-profile, Bush has two aims.
The first will be to reassure NATO nationsthat no deals will be cut in the Mediterranean, then presented to them in Brussels next week as a fait accompli. Hints that the US is prepared to contemplate troop reductions in Europe even larger than those proposed under current Conventional Force in Europe (CFE) negotiations has made Britain and other allies nervous. They view troops levels as a topic best discussed formally in a multilateral format.
``There's an uncalled-for euphoria in some quarters now that suggests that events, where they stand today, mean that the United States can recklessly -- in my view, recklessly -- cut its defense spending,'' Bush said reassuringly before leaving.
Bush's second goal is to counter public expectations that seem to accompany any meeting of US and Soviet leaders. The Bush White House has discovered that summits - and they are always called summits by the press - become a peculiar fixation in Washington as they approach. The meetings themselves become sketches, with only discussion of the most important issues noticed or remembered.
In recent years administrations have always gone into summits saying that regional issues will be high on their agenda. President Bush, for instance, says he will raise the issue of Nicaragua at the request of Costa Rican President Arias.
But after the meetings are over, these regional issues have usually been buried by news about arms control and other more sweeping topics. The Malta meetings may well be no exception. ``Inevitably what's happened in Eastern Europe will tend to dominate the summit,'' says Ed Hewett, senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Discussions in Malta may center on two issues arising since the meetings were agreed to.
The first is the pace of discussions on the CFE pact. The dramatic change in Eastern Europe has made war there seem even less likely than before, lending urgency to the Vienna talks on reducing conventional armies.
Pressure is already growing in the United States for jumbo defense cuts, based on the apparent lessening of the Soviet threat. A CFE treaty could give some budget relief, but for saving large sums a follow-on CFE 2, or even CFE 3, would be required.
Despite Bush's comments about avoiding ``recklessly'' cutting US defense spending, administration officials already openly discuss the prospects for such follow-on reductions. The chief fear of NATO allies is that in Malta Bush and Gorbachev will strike a deal lowering troop levels even further than the figure now on the table in Vienna, which would result in about a 10 percent reduction in US forces in Europe. Western defense Ministers in Brussels concluded two days of talks without reaching agreement on conventional arms cuts.
If nothing else, analysts expect Bush and Gorbachev to reaffirm intentions to reach a quick CFE 1. ``I would project a recommitment by the sides to a calendar that would bring CFE onto line in late '90,'' says Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association.
The second big-picture issue for Malta is superpower intentions in Eastern Europe. Both leaders will probably reassure each other that neither has any intention of employing force to make East Europe fall their way. Then they may talk about what sort of structure or relationship they see between NATO and the Warsaw Pact for the long term.
``The underlying purpose here is to transform the two alliances into largely cooperating organizations, to provide ... a legitimized structure for military power in Central Europe that allows this political evolution to proceed safely,'' Mr. Hewett says.
Trade may also be a Malta issue, with the Soviets pressing for adandonment of the US Jackson-Vanik resolution, which denies the USSR trade favors until it allows freer emigration. Many analysts in the US, as well as Soviet leaders, consider this restriction an anachronism.