AT their wave-tossed meetings in a Malta harbor, President Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev prepared the way for a summit of extraordinary potential in the United States next June. Backslapping like old pals, the superpower leaders all but promised that major arms pacts would be ready by then. ``That summit meeting [in June] will drive the arms control agenda,'' President Bush said.
This was but one indication of Bush's and Gorbachev's evident intention to personally push their bureaucracies toward better relations. Others included:
A common desire to avoid insult or recrimination over the changes in Eastern Europe.
A commitment to work together more closely on economic matters, such as increasing investment by US business in the Soviet economy.
An unprecedented United States admission that the Soviets can do some good in the Middle East.
``If a meeting can improve relations, I think this one has,'' said Bush.
In today's increasingly complicated world, summits between superpowers are peculiar institutions. The press descends on summit sites by the thousands and the world watches the two men as closely as if they were medieval kings who still had power to divide up the world.
But on perhaps the most important world political event since the advent of the cold war, the breakup of Eastern Europe, this summit was not about power so much as the lack of it.
There was no Yalta-like agreement on what the face of Europe should look like. There was no conclusion as to the future of West and East Germany.
Instead, President Bush defended his lack of celebration over the falling of the Berlin Wall, saying it would not help the Germans and would only annoy the Soviets. Gorbachev indirectly indicated that East and West Germany should remain separate nations. But in what could almost serve as a superpower lament, he said larger forces than his own preferences were at work.
``History itself decides the processes and fates on the European continent,'' Gorbachev said.
On things that the two leaders still control, namely the direct relations between their countries, the Malta meetings showed the importance of direct leadership involvement. If there was no personal commitment by Bush and Gorbachev to new arms agreements, they might not be reached, at least not in the time frame the leaders are talking about.
Bush learned the necessity for prodding the bureaucracy after the now-famous ``strategic review'' which began his presidency. Thousands of meeting-hours and reams of paper were spent to conclude that things should stay as they are. Bush, frustrated, himself drew up the plan for NATO force cuts that was later presented at the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) talks in Vienna.
By saying that he is aiming for agreement limiting strategic nuclear weapons and chemical arms at the June summit, Bush has laid down the sort of political marker that arms negotiators hate. Political momentum for the agreement could now be such that it overrides any expert's objections.
But arms agreements hardly ever come about without personal involvement by presidents and party chairmen as security bureaucracies are naturally cautious. ``I think we should shoot for a START [Strategic Arms Reduction Talks] treaty. I'm advised by some of the pros that that is complicated, but, look, I think we ought to go forward,'' Bush said.
The two leaders expressed the same sort of personal desire to reach an agreement limiting conventional forces in Europe, but since those talks involve NATO and Warsaw Pact allies, agreement on a CFE treaty by June is less certain.
Bush and Gorbachev's talks about economics here in Malta involved similar personal pledges for top-down leadership.
Bush called the economic aspect of the summit its most fruitful part, and Gorbachev said ``the things that have taken place at the meeting could be regarded as a political impetus which we were lacking for our economic cooperation to gain momentum.''
On issues related to troubled regions around the world, Bush and Gorbachev sat together at the dais on the cruise liner Maxim Gorky and amiably disagreed about East-bloc weapons flowing to El Salvador's rebels. Then President Bush said something startling to foreign policy experts: that the Soviet Union is playing a ``constructive role'' in urging a peaceful settlement in Lebanon. In the past, US officials have been very reluctant to allow the Soviets a role in any Middle East area.
Presumably in Lebanon the USSR could help out by urging their ally Syria to not begin a blood bath to oust the defiant Christian Gen. Michel Aoun. ``We should use our possibilities and interact in order to promote solution to this protracted conflict,'' Gorbachev said.
Juxtaposed in the full glare of world attention for the first time, Bush and Gorbachev presented a stark contrast in styles.
On one side was the American president, tall, gangly, obviously determined to not even hint that the weather was anything but bracing. Next to him Gorbachev was stockier, seemingly confident despite the crumbling of his East-bloc empire and full of quick jibes. Wrapping up the weekend at the end of the historic joint press conference, Gorbachev thanked the media for their cooperation. Bush, smiling, asked if it was proper to express gratitude before anyone had written.
``We should thank them in advance,'' Gorbachev said. ``And therefore, they will do better in the future.''