ALMOST EVERYONE is beating up on Mikhail Gorbachev as he heads for Washington for his first full-fledged summit with George Bush. It is hard to think of any summit participant since or before Richard Nixon in his Watergate period who came to a major foreign policy event laboring under such a heavy burden of domestic calamity. Mr. Gorbachev, it is now commonly said, has been consumed by the process he invented. He underestimated the depths of his society's discontents and overestimated his capacity to control them. Not even the anxious applause that has poured in on him from foreign quarters, including, after a while, the Bush administration, has appreciably lightened his load. Although he may stay in office for lack of any viable alternative, his power -- that is, the Communist Party's and the central government's power -- is a visibly wasting asset. The young might say he is history.

But he is also politics. We think it would be a great mistake to yield to the current wave of disillusionment with the Soviet president. Easy expectations of his imminent political demise could cost the West valuable opportunities for political gain. Mr. Gorbachev, after all, remains the director of a foreign policy that is actively and by and large responsibly involved in a great international project of fundamental interest to the United States: managing the global and especially the European transition to a post-Cold War, post-containment era. That he has failed to wrap up every detail of this complex and momentous transition -- a triumph for the West but a trauma for the Soviet Union -- in a way immediately convenient to the West is no reason to dismiss him as a serious statesman. Concerned not merely with atmosphere but with structure, he remains the best Kremlin interlocutor the West could expect, no matter what may be the condition of his political health at home.

The business of the summit is bound to seem a bit anticlimactic after the dramas and breakthroughs of such occasions in earlier years. This is the measure -- a welcome measure -- of the change in international relations wrought in the Gorbachev-Reagan years. The Gorbachev-Bush years must necessarily be devoted to less exciting but no less exacting tasks: first, reducing the arms, tensions and divisions accumulated through the Cold War; and then moving on to explore new modes of cooperation on a broader range of global problems -- mutual security, development and the environment. The Washington summit can make its own sturdy contribution to both agendas.