If an expectant world could will it, the George Shultz-Andrei Gromyko meetings in Geneva would mark a turning point. Although many realize that the world's problems are too complex to be settled by two senior statesmen in two days, this could nonetheless be an important, even historic, meeting.
But here on the spot, the deeper implications are being superseded. The outpouring of press, former ambassadors, academics and intelligence specialists from all over the world almost seems to be more important than the event itself. The media and their camp followers, both in terms of numbers and style, have assumed such a presence that they threaten periodically to transcend the message.
There are more than 1,000 correspondents from around the world cluttering hotel lobbies and preempting hotel floors with broadcasting equipment and media stars. Only the Swiss could handle so many anchormen simultaneously without provoking incidents both diplomatic and psychological. Not just Peter Jennings, Marvin Kalb and David Hartman are here but also a Moscow commentator, Valentin Zorin, not to mention squads of Japanese, Europeans, Chinese and even a solitary Pole -- without a cameraman.
The weather makes its own contribution to the circus atmosphere. Shultz's plane lands as the sun rises over Geneva. Gromyko flies in as the sun sets, propelled by a bone-chilling Siberian blast that plunges Geneva's temperatures to the lowest they have been since 1956. Portent or clich,e?
The large U.S. delegation with its offsetting representatives from right and left, from the State Department and from the Pentagon, plus those speaking for President Reagan, resembles not so much a tight negotiatchetypal balanced ticket for the New York Democratic Party -- or a casting party for Strobe Talbott's "Deadly Gambits." By contrast, under the no-nonsense leadership of Gromyko, the Soviet side looks like a well-rehearsed Greek chorus.
Yet, as distracting as it is, the atmosphere should not mask the remarkable change that has occurred in the last year and a quarter. Where the Shultz-Gromyko meeting of late 1983, after the downing of Korean Air Lines 007, was preceded by recriminations and warnings, the current meetings were ushered in by mutual protestations of good faith and most notably by an almost unprecedented apology from the Soviet Union for its wayward cruise missile over Norway and Finland. This spirit is further enhanced by a rare greeting in English at the airport from what we normally regard as that inveterate nyet sayer, Andrei Gromyko.
None of this means that the intractable issues have suddenly become tractable. TV spots of Swiss yodelers and mountain horn blowers do nothing to resolve serious disputes. But there may be some utility to this media extravaganza and the resulting three- network circus. The intense public interest serves to remind Shultz and Gromyko, if they need reminding, that there is a vast audience out there. While there is a risk that this pressure may be perverted into a form of negotiating blackmail, it could also develop its own reinforcing dynamic and spur the extra effort that on rare occasion actually makes a difference.