WHEN George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Helsinki this Sunday, their main topic will be the Persian Gulf. They are expected to restate their countries' implacable opposition to Saddam Hussein's seizure of Kuwait and to reaffirm American-Soviet solidarity behind the United Nations resolutions and sanctions. In so doing, they will deny Saddam any comfort he may have started to derive from rumors of a superpower rift over the Gulf. Bush and Gorbachev also will bolster the resolve of the nations arrayed against Iraq and may deter backsliding by countries tempted to ignore the UN embargo.
Beyond these useful steps, though, the Finland summit is a welcome event for other, longer-term reasons. The speed with which it was arranged says a lot about the degree to which the United States and the Soviet Union have moved beyond cold war habits into a more businesslike manner of dealing. The meeting will be a precedent for regular future meetings between the Soviet and US heads of state.
It's also positive that ``expectations'' will not be a monkey on the back of Sunday's summit. In the past, any meeting of the superpower leaders raised hopes, often exorbitant, for a ``breakthrough'' in the quest for world peace. Summits that failed to produce a breakthrough were labeled failures, however helpful they might have been in small ways to normalizing US-Soviet relations. The ``expectations'' syndrome tended to produce an odd dynamic in the scheduling and staging of summits, which worked against their usefulness.
Because the Helsinki meeting will last but a single day, however, and will deal primarily with an issue that is beyond the power of Washington and Moscow to resolve on their own, world expectations will be modest. In a curious way, that's constructive.
The two leaders can do more than just issue a statement, however. Bush can reassure Gorbachev that the US doesn't have a hidden geostrategic goal in the Middle East, and that Moscow needn't fear a permanent buildup of American forces just 700 miles from the Soviet border. For his part, Gorbachev could agree to withdraw all Soviet military advisers from Iraq, thereby pulling out one more of the props bracing Saddam Hussein.