NOT in decades have the superpower leaders met at a summit on such unequal footing: George Bush is holding most of the cards. As he and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev ponder how to move out of their 40-year nuclear stare-down, their talking points in meetings that begin today at the White House are as fundamental as any since the post-war division of Europe.
Mr. Bush's edge dominates virtually every front - so much so that Mr. Gorbachev's most often-cited bargaining leverage is his very fragility in the Soviet Union.
That does not mean that Bush will win every hand at this summit. He has already been hit from his political right by charges that he has acquiesced to Soviet termsin arms control? coming into the session. From the left and elsewhere, some charge he has been too passive in responding to Soviet pressure on Lithuania.
But unlike Gorbachev, Bush has little need to bolster his prestige and popular support at home. His public approval ratings of 80 percent in the most recent ABC News poll and in the 70 percent range for months on end represent the highest measured standing of any president in American history, says opinion expert and political scientist Everett Carll Ladd.
Soviet public support for Gorbachev and his policies, by contrast, has recently been estimated anywhere from a high of 43 percent to below 20 percent.
Americans show a preference for some main thrusts of Bush's Soviet policy. Across a wide range of polls, they find the Soviets less threatening but reject a relaxing of military deployment. Polls have shown a decided reluctance within the US to confront the Soviets sharply over Lithuania.
Bush is also more secure on the world scene. While Gorbachev is popular and immensely respected as the primary agent of change in late 20th-century politics, Bush still has allies. In the Warsaw Pact, Czechoslovakia and Hungary have asked the Soviets to withdraw their troops. From a united Germany, the best the Soviets can hope for is neutrality, and both the Germans and the Americans appear unlikely to accept that. NATO, some analysts say, is more likely to gain East Germany than to lose any members.
``Gorbachev has no one in the world on which he can rely,'' says Daniel Nelson of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
A traditional risk of summits is that US leaders overestimate the power of personal relationships and become overeager for a successful summit.
The Soviets understand this, says George Carver of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and always toughen their bargaining positions just before a summit to win concessions. He argues, as do many conservatives, that Secretary of State James Baker III made a series of such concessions in his last round of presummit negotiations in Moscow. ``With television, klieg lights, and the desire for photo opportunities,'' says Dr. Carver, ``we give away too much.''
Other analysts argue that Mr. Baker's concessions in Moscow were trivial. ``A lot of that stuff is quibbling,'' says Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution and former counsel to the State Department.
And Gorbachev, like Bush, is sensitive to the public relations value of summit success. ``Gorbachev is now entirely aware of the importance of public opinion,'' says Dr. Nelson. ``He needs a lot more than George Bush to demonstrate achievement.''
Observers of all ideological stripes agree that the most important conversations at this summit will not involve arms control or trade agreements but the future security of central Europe. For now, that means whether and how a united Germany will be a member of NATO.
Any movement, notes Mr. Sonnenfeldt, should become apparent in coming weeks at further meetings of European alliance and cooperative organizations.
Michael Mandelbaum of the Council on Foreign Relations expects no actual bargaining at the summit. ``What we've seen is what we're going to get,'' he says. ``That's the way Bush works. he likes to get to know his opposite numbers.''
But Dr. Nelson believes that real decisions can be made. ``There are stumbling blocks which two men meeting in a room can overcome. There are things that are not scripted.''