The weeks before a summit are a time for expansiveness, and Mikhail Gorbachev has been adroitly feeding the feeling. His interview in Time as well as hints dropped to a visiting delegation of U.S. senators have raised hopes that this really is a man we can do business with, to quote Margaret Thatcher and most recently Claiborne Pell, one of last week's senatorial pilgrims to Moscow. Can we? A close reading of Gorbachev's fall offensive suggests another view, the narrow view.
The expansive view derives first from Gorbachev's youth and energy. Both are undeniable and impressive. But from where do we get the idea that they bring with them openness to deals? After all, it is only in the last few years that the Soviets have had weak and transient ladership. For the 60 years before 1982, they had only three leaders. (The United States had 12.) Nor do the Soviets have a history of choosing old and feeble leaders. Stalin came to power at age 49, Khrushchev and Brezhnev at 61. Gorbachev represents a return to the Soviet norm, and the Soviet norm in dealing with the West is not a cause for encouragement.
Then there is the Gorbachev style. Not so much anymore his tailoring or his wife, but his language. It his rhetorical style that has him "running rings around Reagan in presummit propaganda," as Tom Wicker puts it. Gorbachev speaks Westernese. It is characterized by:
1)The language of shared hopes: "We also believe it immoral to waste hundreds of billions on developing means of annihilation while hundreds of millions of people go hungry . . . ." Spoken like Willy Brandt. The famine victims of Ethiopia, where Gorbachev sinks millions for weaponry and peanuts for food, will be pleased with the news.
2)An air of mutual tolerance: "We have never accused the United States of being an 'evil empire.'imes points out, in this year alone the Soviets have accused the United States of preparing to invade Lebanon (over the TWA hijacking) and of being behind the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the murder of a planeload of Air India passengers.
3)Enough moral equivalence to fuel a season of neoconservative conferences: "We have something to say about . . . violations of human rights in America itself." And, "neither the president nor I will be able to ignore the mood in our respective countries or that of our allies." More good news, this time for voters from Prague to Vladivostok.
On the whole, stylish. Still, style is not of itself proof of bad faith. What is most troubling is Gorbachev's substance. His presummit maneuvers are evidence of the narrowest, single-issue politics. For Gorbachev, this is the Star Wars summit.
Follow his discussions and all roads lead to Star Wars. And yet, the remarkable thing about his two hours with Time and 31/2 hours with the senators -- remarkable given the excitement and feeling of "flexibility" they engendered -- is the fact that Gorbachev said absolutely nothing new on the subject.
Unless, that is, you count his concession to permit fundamental research on Star Wars. As Sam Nunn explained the proposal: "We will allow you to think."
Thank you, Mr. General Secretary. As a concession, this amounts to permitting the sun to rise daily in the East. In reality, this concession is a reiteration of the most self-serving Soviet position at Geneva. Gorbachev demands that nonfundamental research, predevelopment activity involving mock- ups or models or contract-letting, be banned. Of course he does. This is precisely the kind of activity open societies cannot hide and closed societies specialize in hiding. Any such ban would be unilateral.
The other headline-making offer was that if the United States would give up Star Wars, the Soviets would make radical proposals, presumably on offensive weapons, "the very next day." This -- "The Day After," Soviet-style -- is a stylish way of repeating the Soviet stonewall position at Geneva: no negotiations on anything until the United States first gives up its trump card.
In nonexpansive times, this is known as a precondition, and generally is considered unhelpful, as the diplomats say, to the success of negotiation. If Gorbachev really is hinting at a deal (restraints on strategic defenses in exchange for restraints on offensive missiles) then he can do two things. First, make clear that the deal is a duet for simultaneous, not sequential play. No "day after." And make it clear at Geneva. That is where you show seriousness, not in the press or in huddles with touring senators.
There is one more thing Gorbachev might consider -- one of those "propaganda gestures" for which he likes to feign disdain. It would make no dent in his strategic posture, yet would genuinely impress the cynics. He could free Andrei Sakharov, Anatoly Scharansky and the thousands of Jews for whom the Soviet Union itself is a prison.
If good presummit atmospherics is what Gorbachev wants, that is the way to achieve it. He is not likely to accede. The senators noted that he cut off all questions on Afghanistan and human rights. ("Unfortunate," allowed one senator.) While he holds on to his negotiating preconditions -- and his prisoners -- it will be hard to think of Gorbachev the Statesman as anything but a clever politician of the highest style and the narrowest vision.