I will take you behind the scenes of what the movies call a major metropolitan daily -- in this case, The Washington Post. With Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev finally airborne from Geneva, a group of editors and writers met to mull over the meaning of the summit. We talked arms control, Star Wars, the future of the ABM treaty -- things that only Donald Regan and real men understand. Then an editor mentioned Susan and Ruth. He said the summit had been good for them.
Susan and Ruth are my colleague's children. They are cute, bright girls, but the point of the story is not to show that journalists, too, are people but rather that something real was accomplished at the summit. Reagan and Gorbachev have together made the world a less tense place.
Ironically, this was precisely the sort of summit meeting that Reagan always said he had wanted to avoid. It virtually lacked an agenda. The staff work had not been done. The outstanding differences between the two nations had not been narrowed to the point where the top guys could step in and cut the ribbon on a treaty. But simply by meeting, by agreeing to meet again -- by, in short, not making matters worse and actually making them better -- both Reagan and Gorbachev gave the world a badly needed lift.
Real differences and difficulties remain, of course, and history -- not to mention all of us -- will be entitled to judge both leaders harshly if they revert to their old ways. For starters, Gorbachev could clear his head of some banal anti- American claptrap. The country he regards as his adversary is a propagandist's crude cartoon, dominated by warmongering industrialists, inhabited by exploited workers and, of course, those few blacks in the South who have somehow managed to avoid lynching. A visit here would be useful, and there could be no better guide than Ronald Reagan. He hasn't seen a poor person in 30 years.
As for Reagan, he can no longer conduct himself as if rhetoric does not matter. His simplistic anti-communism and his oaths to battle the "evil empire" have taken their toll. He can excuse more than five years of a presidency without a summit by saying that his opposite number kept dying on him. But the Russians who remained alive -- Gorbachev, for one -- heard everything he said. They are forgiven for thinking that the American president was, to paraphrase one of their own, out to bury them.
The Cold War is a peculiar war. It is not a battle for markets or even for strategic pieces of land. And it is not really even an ideological dispute since, as China proves, a communist government alone is not enough for us to grant the nation enemy status. The competition is instead based on perceptions of intent -- ours of Russia's, Russia's of ours -- in which the perceptions tend to validate each other. The Soviet Union points to Grenada, Nicaragua or Vietnam; the United States points to Czechoslovakia, Angola, Afghanistan.
So in a war based on perceptions, the perception that tensions were eased at the summit matters greatly. It matters even though, to some extent, this meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev might be viewed as a setback. Consider for a moment that Gorbachev is now personally apprised of Reagan's almost religious belief in the efficacy of Star Wars -- a defensive shield that does not exist, will never exist as Reagan envisions it and, as they say in football, can be defensed. It is, for instance, useless against low-flying missiles launched from either planes or submarines. Only as a bargaining chip does Star Wars make any sense -- that or an attempt to lure the Soviets into a spending race that would put their economy into a dark age.
It is clear that a lot remains on the table. It is clear that Reagan in particular, but Gorbachev, too, has to answer for the way he has conducted himself while in office -- his posturing, his ethnocentrism-cum-jingoism that delayed the summit and made it, in Realpolitik terms, so unproductive when it finally was held. But considering what could have happened, considering how far Reagan had to go just to get to Geneva, something good came out of the summit -- the promise of a safer world down the road. Susan and Ruth appreciate that.