In the 30-year history of Soviet-American summitry there has never been so little agreement over what those due to meet would discuss. Ronald Reagan's speech at the United Nations may have succeeded in achieving his principal objective, which is to steal a march on Mikhail Gorbachev by publicly trying to set the agenda for the summit. But the President chose to define that agenda in a way that is clearly unacceptable to the Soviets. Reagan has put the world on notice that he does not want to give priority to arms control, despite (and in some ways because of) Gorbachev's public preoccupation with that subject.
Instead, Reagan announced, he wants to concentrate on an issue about which the Soviets are suspicious, combative and neuralgic--their sponsorship of client states in the Third World. For the U.S. it is a question of Moscow's riding roughshod over one of the fundamental understandings of détente. At their 1972 summit, Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev signed a declaration of principles that committed both sides to resist the temptation to "obtain unilateral advantage" over each other. But when the U.S.S.R. began moving into Africa in the mid-1970s--particularly into Ethiopia and Angola, which figured so prominently in Reagan's speech--the U.S. accused the Kremlin of "violating" the spirit of détente, which was soon pronounced dead by numerous analysts. The Soviets, who tend to recognize not the spirit of agreements but only the letter, considered their expansionism as a right that came with their new status as a global superpower.
When faced with domestic or international pressure for some measure of accommodation with the U.S.S.R., Reagan has often come forward with a deliberate non-starter--a diplomatic initiative that has the twin virtues of public relations appeal and intellectual merit, but that is utterly non-negotiable. In 1981 he sought to defuse the restlessness of Europeans by proposing the zero option: no U.S. missile deployments in Western Europe in exchange for the dismantling of all SS-20 missiles throughout the U.S.S.R. In 1982 he moved to head off the nuclear freeze movement by proposing deep cuts primarily in Soviet warheads. Then in 1983 he went the freeze movement one better and proposed to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" with his Strategic Defense Initiative. Now, in response to Gorbachev's ambitious peace offensive and offer to cut offensive weapons if Star Wars is scrapped, Reagan is responding with, "Let's talk about something else, something that the Soviets, to their discredit, don't want to talk about."
There is nothing wrong with such a public relations ploy. There was no shortage of salesmanship in the Nixon-Kissinger era, and Gorbachev's own proposals have been largely propaganda. But the trick--which Nixon and Kissinger mastered, and Gorbachev too seems to be learning quickly--is to play for the galleries without jeopardizing what can be achieved at the bargaining table.
That may be where Reagan's speech created more problems than it solved; it may have increased the chances that the summiteers will feel compelled to spend their time maneuvering for the moral and ideological high ground rather than negotiating. George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze now have just three weeks to work out an agenda that cuts through the rhetoric of both their leaders. --By Strobe Talbott