Herewith some fearless forecasts for the summit:
At each break in the two days of talking between the president, the general secretary and their top lieutenants, several thousand journalists will find almost as many ways to ask the same question: any progress? You can safely anticipate right now the opaque answers and the noncommittal shrugs. That will be enough to nourish speculation of "breakthroughs . . . stalemates . . . turning points."
But by the time the two leaders give their own final accounting, it will begin to look like a needlessly long, torturous climb for a short and relatively simple slide. By that, I mean the following: No big deals struck, but also no walkouts or dire threats or fundamental, irreconcilable differences publicly belabored.
There will almost certainly be a joint communiqu,e. Ordinarily, that would have been taken for granted. But my guess is that the Reagan administration has been working the familiar political strategy of a candidate who says in advance how lucky he will be even to come close when he has every good reason to believe he will win. We have now been told more than enough times that there may not even be a communiqu,e. So we are nicely set up for a happy surprise if the two men find common language for even bland statements of where they have been able to agree, or to agree to disagree.
The former will obviously be made to loom larger than the latter. Much will be made of cultural exchanges, air-traffic control over the Pacific, "people-to- people contacts" and the rest. What would now appear to be an irreconcilable difference over Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") is unlikely to preclude some rough and ready guidelines on arms control.
But even fundamental conflicts of interest -- the non-negotiability of two wholly different ideologies at war with each other for world influence -- are likely to override the incentives both men share to shake hands and come out smiling. And that's because, ironically, both Reagan and Gorbachev have their own reasons for conveying back home and abroad a measured combination of toughness and flexibility.
Take Gorbachev, the new boy still consolidating power, still answerable to an old-guard Soviet mentality and facing a crucial party congress in February. He must be seen to be strong -- so as "not to frighten the elite" in the Soviet hierarchy, as one expert puts it. But he must also show himself capable of dealing on the world stage with the leader of the other superpower. He will be playing to a Western European audience, as well, which means not looking like the spoiler of an occasion supposedly dedicated to peace-keeping.
For his part, Reagan's vigorous rhetorical combat with communism over the years has endowed him with his own "elite" -- a conservative constituency that accounts in large measure for his political clout. He can hardly afford to let the side down in his first confrontation with the leader of the communist world by seeming soft.
Nevertheless, last week's nationally televised stage-setter for this week's drama also revealed a somewhat loftier presidential preoccupation with the verdict of history. He spoke of "a historic opportunity to set a steady, more constructive course in the 21st century." He would try "to engage the new Soviet leader in what I hope will be a dialogue for peace that endures beyond my presidency."
Speaker Tip O'Neill is not famous as a Soviet expert or student of diplomacy. But he does know that presidents don't book themselves into a joint session of Congress immediately upon their return from a large diplomatic enterprise unless they have some reason to think they will have something appealing to present. That's one more reason why a lot of people in this town suspect there has been more pre-cooking than meets the eye.
The proof of Geneva's pudding will be weeks or months or maybe even years away. But the immediate impact of the imagery, in the context of the deep chill in recent U.S.-Soviet relations, will be more positive than you might expect from the preparatory posturing.