We can say in praise of this summit that some lovely flowers are scentless. This was the best, meaning least bad, postwar summit because it proved that expectations can be judiciously pruned, and it showed how little "progress" must be suffered.

The art of summitry involving democrats and dictators consists of talking without arriving at genuine acrimony about premises, or at specious "accords" about particularities. There were mercifully few of those turnpike tickets on the road to cynicism.

Alexander wept when he had no more worlds to conquer; so George Shultz may now shed a tear. No imaginable achievement -- not even universal disarmament -- can compare with what he produced by terror. By threatening to send home anyone seen conversing with a journalist's third cousin, he made the U.S. delegation keep its collective mouth sealed. The discipline of diplomacy comes hard and late to democracy, but it comes when there is in Geneva $10 million worth of journalistic electronics and not a dime's worth of news.

The subject of human rights was last and, alas, probably least. Presumably President Reagan at least improved the approach. U.S. officials often raise that issue in an apologetic manner, explaining to the Soviets that human rights violations are a political problem for any U.S administration. They say America is a "nation of immigrants" and ratification of agreements and d,etente generally will be difficult without some Soviet gestures.

This approach blames the U.S. public for the awkwardness U.S. officials feel when forced to deal with the essential truths about the Soviet regime. Within officialdom, those truths are scarce, but the supply exceeds demand.

A dictator's servants write most of his press notices, so his head can be turned by favorable notices he has not commanded. Both Gorbachevs may have believed the rubbish written in the West concerning their charm. Actually, they conspicuously lack what the Reagans abundantly have -- the social graces borne of democratic sociability, the manners of people who meet and persuade other people as equals. Both Gorbachevs rose in an authoritarian apparatus by being subordinates or subordinators. In social settings they are prickly about asserting petty prerogatives, and they make cold conversation, like mimeograph machines from the propaganda ministry.

The Soviets modified their goals in mid-summit, conforming somewhat to Reagan's tactic, which was to treat this meeting as a beginning to be assessed in terms of the axiom that most beginnings are small. U.S. negotiators wisely shaped the format, and hence the summit, by having Reagan host the first session so that Reagan could, with the walk to the poolhouse, define this as the summit he wanted: a sensitivity session. Gorbachev did not get what he wanted, a summit of technical bargaining under the reinforcing pressures of a two-day deadline and inflated Western expectations.

A summit sets three tests. Reagan passed the first two: the warmup and the event. He must not lose the aftermath. A challenge concerns the unratified SALT II.

Reagan's policy of not "undercutting" SALT II has become, with his documented charges of Soviet violations, a policy of unilateral compliance. In June, vowing to go "the last mile," Reagan retired a submarine as a new one entered service. But he ordered a report delivered Nov. 15 concerning appropriate responses to Soviet noncompliance. He said U.S. policy would depend on improved Soviet compliance and arms control progress. Since June he has denounced a serious new violation (illegal deployment of a new missile). And the new Soviet arms proposal is absurdly asymmetrical.

SALT II enthusiasts will say Reagan must continue punctilious compliance lest he jeopardize the "atmosphere" (a.k.a. the "process") established at the summit. But selective noncompliance -- no more retired submarines, for example -- is required to complete Reagan's task of emancipating U.S. policy from excessive concern with things like summits.

The Soviets' palpable anxiety about Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative announces the fact that the Russians assume SDI will work, in this sense: SDI will substantially devalue the enormous Soviet investment in offensive systems and will radically complicate the calculations of any Soviet official planning a first strike. (SDI might strengthen deterrence less by making safety certain than by multiplying the uncertainties of an aggressor.) SDI will degrade the Soviet offensive arsenal as a geopolitical asset. That arsenal is the only claim the economically and culturally backward Soviet Union has to superpower status.

Being specialists in brutality, the Soviets want to keep the competition in the realm of nuclear blackmail and aggression at the Third World margins of their empire (Afghanistan, etc.). SDI moves competition toward economic and scientific realms, where the fecundity of freedom is telling.

The fact that SDI survived this summit means that a product of the 1972 summit, the ABM treaty, will eventually be revised. That treaty codified the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. That doctrine is an incitement to nuclear pacifism in the West. Besides, the Soviet Union, spending huge sums on defense, has never agreed other than rhetorically with mutual vulnerability. So the ABM treaty's time has passed. As de Gaulle said, treaties are like roses and young girls: they last while they last.