PRESIDENTS Bush and Gorbachev soon will meet in the United States for one of the most interesting summits to date. Unlike prior summits, where the emphasis has been on avoiding nuclear war, this summit is about the building of relationships - relationships between our countries and among the nations of the new post-cold war era. Paving the way for Moscow, a procession of Soviet experts and officials has been marching through Washington in recent weeks to take America's pre-summit temperature and to offer up a sense of the mood back home.
Asked to spell out the priorities for the summit agenda, the Soviets offer this laundry list:
1. Germany. The ``German Question'' looms large; larger perhaps than any other single issue, according to one Soviet expert with close ties to Gorbachev. For Moscow, anchoring a united Germany within NATO remains, at least for now, unacceptable. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze reiterated this view at last weekend's ``Two Plus Four'' talks among both Germanys, Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union on German reunification.
The Soviet claim that Germany is the No. 1 priority for the summit is, in the view of some Soviet-watchers, simply a political strategy designed to keep attention focused on issues where Moscow can press for concessions from Washington. There are many German cards in Moscow's deck. The Soviets could call for a full denuclearization of both East and West Germany as a prerequisite to reunification - thereby capitalizing on the antinuclear sentiment in both Germanys. They could press for even greater cuts in US forces in Europe. Pentagon sources say that there are some in the military who are prepared to see as few as 50,000 troops in Europe, down from 350,000 currently stationed there.
The US seems to be counting on the fact that in the end Moscow will accept having a unified Germany in NATO, in return for the right package deal to include economic bonuses for Moscow. Incentives have already been dangled before the Soviets, including last week's decision by President Bush to cancel plans to deploy a new generation of short-range nuclear weapons in Germany.
2. START. There were high hopes after the Malta summit that both sides would be much further along on the road to strategic arms control by now. Instead, momentum slowed and both sides are now accusing each other of back-tracking on key issues. Soviet sources say that the agreement on counting rules for conventional and nuclear weapons systems was reached, in tandem with agreements on setting range limits for air-launched cruise missiles. The US disagrees. The US views current Soviet positions on sea-launched cruise missiles as a retreat from agreed-on positions.
A further complication is Soviet insistence that any arms control agreements reached by Bush and Gorbachev must be ratified by the Supreme Soviet. If the Soviets are genuinely moving toward a system of representative government, we may find ourselves having to play in a new, more complicated Soviet game, rather than with the traditional one-party rules.
3. Lithuania. The Soviets put Lithuania on the list of summit issues only out of a pragmatic understanding of its importance to the US.
The Baltic situation continues to be the wild card in the deck and may affect the course of the summit. On Capitol Hill there are calls for a postponement of the summit in protest over Moscow's economic pressure on Lithuania. So far the Bush administration has resisted such linkage. What may push the administration to reverse that decision is any use of overt force by Moscow to quell public actions in Lithuania.
4. Export control. The faltering Soviet economy, and what the US might be able to do to help Moscow, are an undercurrent running through many of the summit issues. Moscow is particularly irritated by the prospects that the US will provide access to high technology to the countries with new democratic governments in Eastern Europe while denying such items to the Soviet Union. So the US last week proposed relaxing restrictions on the export of advanced technological goods to the Soviet Union, including computers, precision machine tools, and some telecommunications equipment.
Cocom, the 17-nation body that coordinates export-control policy to the Soviet bloc, has been steadily easing restrictions on the export of certain items going to the Soviet Union, such as medical equipment and desktop personal computers, but Moscow says this is not enough. What the Soviets want is access to advanced telecommunications equipment, hi-speed computers, fiberoptics, and other sophisticated technologies which the US claims may have military applications.
Despite all the maneuvering in this season of pre-summitry, the goal of keeping the US-Soviet relationship on track seems to be a shared one. Moscow approaches this May summit in perhaps its weakest position since the end of World War II and is hence in a mood to compromise. The US approaches the summit determined to see Moscow fall. There may just be in this combination a recipe for success.
In her May 10 opinion-page column ``The Agenda for the Summit,'' Tara Sonenshine explains why, despite many issues on which Moscow and Washington disagree, the upcoming summit is likely to succeed. The next to last sentence in the article should have read, ``The US approaches the summit determined not to see Moscow fall.'' Due to an editing mistake, the word ``not'' was omitted.