Despite Third World suspicion that the superpowers plan to impose a solution to regional conflicts at the forthcoming summit, administration officials say it is unlikely that President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will strike any deals.
Nor do they seem to anticipate much chance that the Geneva meeting will produce anything similar to the 1972 "code of conduct" that was to lay down the rules of superpower competition for influence around the world during the ill-fated era of detente. Nonetheless, the regional peace initiative Reagan launched Oct. 24 at the United Nations is regarded as a useful ploy for probing Gorbachev's intentions in an attempt to detect any change in the Soviet attitude toward Afghanistan or any of the other Third World superpower "brush wars."
"They are still not Gorbachev's wars," one administration official said of the Afghanistan conflict. "The feeling is it's important to get to him before they become 'his wars.' "
Third World suspicion about superpower wheeling and dealing has accompanied all summits. Reagan's regional initiative appears to be heightening the inherent paranoia of both superpowers' proxies and friends about being "sold out" in the name of superpower cooperation, if not detente.
This general Third World skepticism toward how the Americans and Soviets view regional conflicts was reflected in recent remarks by South African Bishop Desmond M. Tutu. The Nobel Peace Prize winner said he thought that Reagan viewed South African blacks as "pawns in the East-West power game."
Third World leaders and intellectuals are certain to be scrutinizing the Nov. 19-20 Geneva summit for signs of superpower deals at the expense of the "pawns." They may, however, find little to confirm their suspicion.
Prospects for substantive U.S.-Soviet agreement on civil wars in such potential East-West testing grounds as Afghanistan, Angola or Nicaragua are not good, according to the administration's Third World experts. Neither is it considered likely, they say, that the superpowers will agree on any new "code of conduct."
On the contrary, the Reagan administration has just increased by $150 million for two years its funding for rebels fighting Soviet and Soviet-backed forces in Afghanistan, a big jump in the current $250 million annual funding. The administration also appears about to provide humanitarian or military aid to rebels fighting the Marxist Angolan government.
The Soviets this year have waged their biggest offensive drives in Afghanistan, while stepping up military commitments to allies in Angola, Ethiopia and Nicaragua.
The idea of a "code of conduct" to govern Soviet and U.S. competition in the Third World began with the 1972 summit at which President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed "The Basic Principles of Relations Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." It was supposed to provide guidelines for a new era of superpower detente. "We haven't seen anything to suggest that they want to go back to the 1972 'basic principles,' " said one administration Soviet expert, adding that not "much enthusiasm" exists here for reestablishing such a credo.
The "basic principle" on which detente ultimately foundered was the vow that neither side would seek "unilateral advantage at the expense of the other" in regional conflicts. The United States believes that repeated Soviet and Cuban violations of this principle doomed the short-lived era of detente.
Within a few years of signing the agreement, the Soviets or Cubans or both began intervening militarily in Angola in 1975, in Ethiopia in 1977 and in Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is widely regarded as marking the formal end of detente.
At the U.N., Reagan went to the heart of the U.S. perception of Soviet duplicity in such conflicts, bluntly telling Moscow that, without settlement of these regional wars, more stable U.S.-Soviet relations are unlikely.
He proposed "a regional peace process" in which warring parties would be forced to negotiate peace agreements, foreign troops would be withdrawn and the superpowers would "sit down together" to guarantee this. He cited conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Nicaragua.
A senior administration official, elaborating on the Reagan speech, echoed words from the 1972 summit document in saying the foundation for better U.S.-Soviet relations must be acknowledgment "that neither side should seek to expand unilaterally its own influence."
Reagan's offer was essentially lopsided. The United States is involved substantially, but indirectly, only in the Afghanistan and Nicaragua conflicts, while the Soviets and Cubans are involved directly with arms, troops or advisers in all five conflicts. They would have to make the largest concessions, in some cases probably dooming their allies.
Since February, U.S. experts have been probing the Kremlin leadership for any signs of a new attitude toward Third World involvement. They have met Soviet counterparts for "an exchange of views" on Afghanistan, Asia, southern Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
The last round of talks occurred here last Thursday and Friday on Latin America and the Caribbean.
Virtually nothing has emerged from these regional talks, and no discussion of terms for a new "code of conduct" occurred, administration officials said.
The Afghan and Angolan hostilities have been the most frequent topic of negotiations and provide a good measure of possible progress in U.S.-Soviet attempts to cooperate on settling Third World conflicts.
In Afghanistan, vague Soviet hints at increased interest in finding a settlement earlier this year generated hope about a possible breakthrough.
The U.N. has led efforts to find a negotiated solution, sponsoring "proximity talks" in Geneva between the Soviet-backed Afghan government and the Pakistani government. A sixth round is scheduled Dec. 16, after two rounds this summer led to outlines of a settlement on three of four parts of an agreement.
Deadlocking the talks is the "fourth document," a Soviet commitment to, and specific schedule for, withdrawal of 118,000 troops there. U.S. officials report no conclusive evidence that Moscow is ready to withdraw.
"If the Soviet are not prepared to talk withdrawal, I don't know where we go from here [in the proximity talks]," a U.S. official said.
While Reagan has asked the Soviets to negotiate with Afghan rebels, U.S. experts said this could be disastrous because the rebels are greatly divided about what might constitute an "acceptable government" if Afghan leader Babrak Karmal is ousted.
Reagan said the United States would "consider guarantees for any agreements" reached by the warring parties but only with "verified elimination of the foreign military presence and restraint on the flow of outside arms."
Administration officials see "very little" chance of imminent superpower agreement on Afghanistan.
On Angola, the administration has taken the lead in seeking withdrawal of 25,000 to 35,000 Cuban troops stationed there while seeking settlement of the Namibia dispute involving South Africa. After 4 1/2 years of negotiations, the talks ended last spring.
Assistant Secretary of State Chester A. Crocker told Congress last week that both sides again have indicated interest in resuming talks.
A U.S. decision to begin offering any assistance to noncommunist Angolan guerrillas could scuttle hope for new talks.