"A lot is at stake. The whole direction of U.S.-Soviet relations is going to be significantly marked by the outcome of the first summit meeting in six years." --A White House aide, paraphrasing the speech Ronald Reagan will deliver Thursday before departing for Geneva
"There is a strong possibility of a boiler-plate summit reaching one or two milestones but never getting down to basics." --A senior adviser to Reagan
The odd thing is that the final rounds of presummit briefings, speeches, meetings and (as always) propaganda in Washington and Moscow lend support to both these forecasts. Admittedly, the long-awaited talks next week between the leaders of the world's two nuclear superpowers may never get beyond the boiler plate of Soviet-American relations. If any concrete agreements emerge (cultural exchanges? new consulates?), it might be stretching a point to call them milestones. Indeed, it seems increasingly obvious that the 74-year-old President of the U.S. and the 54-year-old General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party are going to Geneva not just to haggle over missiles but to articulate strongly opposed views of the world and of each other's behavior. Yet that exchange, paradoxically, might indeed mark a new direction for superpower relations. Even though the opportunity of a bold stroke for peace may be squandered, the summit is likely to start a continuing dialogue that, no matter how spirited, would be better than the frozen silence in which the White House and Kremlin have eyed each other since Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev met in Vienna in 1979.
Discussions preceding the summit have often seemed to highlight rather than narrow differences. On arms control, inevitably the main issue in a world living under a perpetual threat of nuclear extinction, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. have exchanged proposals that call for cutting to 6,000 the number of "nuclear charges" in their arsenals, but they differ deeply on what warheads and bombs to put in that category. Progress, if any is possible, awaits a decision by Reagan to agree to some limits on his Star Wars defensive shield, or by Gorbachev to shoot for a deal without any such limits. On regional issues (such as Afghanistan and Central America) and human rights, the discussions amount largely to mutual accusations of meddling, subversion, repression.
It would be naive to expect the leaders of two nations with sharply contrasting political and social systems and deeply differing values even to begin to solve these impacted problems in eight hours of talks on Tuesday and Wednesday. But their meeting could at least set the tone for whatever combination of shouting and serious negotiation (it is unlikely to be either/or) will succeed the silence. A whole world will be anxiously watching every eyelid they lift or lower.