The summit meeting of President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev changed the climate and the communication between the two superpowers, but did not alter their global rivalry or the pace of their arms buildups.
In time, however, the Geneva talks could lead to a broad improvement in the relations of the two leading nations of the world.
The chances for a major improvement in relations are likely to be maximized if Reagan and Gorbachev, who appeared to enjoy one another's company, make good on their commitment to regular summit meetings. Gorbachev is scheduled to come here in 1986 and Reagan plans to visit the Soviet Union in 1987. Such commitments to regular summits have been made several times in the past but on earlier occasions fell victim to unexpected events.
The symbolic impact of the Reagan's seemingly cordial relations with Gorbachev, the pictures of Nancy Reagan hand-in-hand with Raisa Gorbachev and, in general, the personalization of a depersonalized "enemy" are likely to have an impact in the United States, especially coming from a symbols-conscious president who is probably the most outspoken anticommunist ever to hold the office.
In Moscow as well, the television and newspaper pictures of Reagan with Gorbachev in friendly discourse could have substantial effect on public and elite opinion. The tone and direction of Soviet views of Reagan have changed astonishingly since late 1983, when Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was writing off the possibility of dealing with the Reagan administration and speaking as if nuclear war might be just around the corner.
Establishing the conditions for a substantial improvement -- rather than producing agreements that bring about such improvements now -- is about all that could have been expected from the first meeting of top U.S. and Soviet leaders after six years of intense hostility and name-calling. This is especially the case in view of the very limited experience of Reagan and Gorbachev with top people on the other side.
Unlike the practice at most previous summit meetings, the outcome of last week's sessions was not worked out in advance by representatives of the two nations. In this respect, it was among the least predictable of the 11 U.S.-Soviet summits since World War II. The outcome, according to U.S. officials, was just about what was expected in terms of substance but somewhat more positive than expected in terms of tone.
Reagan, in his Saturday radio address, said he had obtained "a better perspective" from his talks with Gorbachev and that "I think he went home with a lot to think about, too." He said the two leaders "have much work to do" before their meeting next year, which Reagan said he plans in Washington.
A senior White House official told reporters in Geneva immediately after Thursday morning's joint ceremony that no secret agreements had been made. Other officials repeated the same thing since.
Reagan, who is impatient with detailed negotiating positions and "talking points" in the familiar diplomatic mode, is reported by officials to have used his five hours of head-to-head communication with Gorbachev for general discussions in an attempt to improve understanding rather than to produce specific decisions and agreements. There is little expectation, therefore, of revelations of deals-in-the-making at Geneva.
Among the tangible results of the Geneva meeting, the commitment to improve the U.S.-Soviet dialogue and especially to hold regular summit meetings could have the greatest eventual impact. Such meetings tend to generate preparatory and follow-up meetings of lesser officials, to produce deadlines for positive actions to be negotiated or announced and, in general, to energize the bureaucracies. This was already happening in the months leading up to last week's meeting.
Since the Geneva summit was agreed upon in July, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze have held four lengthy rounds of preparatory discussions, in Helsinki, New York, Washington and Moscow, in which almost every aspect of U.S.-Soviet relations was discussed intensively.
Five detailed U.S.-Soviet discussions lasting a day or two have been held since the first of the year on regional problems in the Middle East, southern Africa, Afghanistan, East Asia and Central America, respectively. These are now to be held regularly under an agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev.
As the summit approached, there was a notable step-up in the pace of U.S.-Soviet arms talks, which were resumed in March following a year-long interruption. A Soviet proposal for a 50 percent cut in offensive weapons in late September was matched by a U.S. proposal for a 50 percent cut -- on a different basis -- a month later. Since then the two sides have been speaking openly of a separate (or as the Soviets preferred) "interim" agreement on intermediate-range missiles in Europe and endorsed this at the summit.
A senior U.S. official said yesterday that the results of the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting were those of "a good first summit, but not of a good third summit." His idea was that the two nations will have to produce more important results as time goes on to justify their interaction at the top level.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed in 1959 at Camp David to hold regular summits. The 1960 Paris meeting was to be the next one. But that conference broke up over Eisenhower's refusal to apologize to Khrushchev for the U2 intelligence overflight of the Soviet Union that had been forced down two weeks earlier.
President Richard M. Nixon's trip to Moscow in 1972 was the first of a series that included additional meetings in Washington (1973), Moscow (1974), Vladivostok (1974) and Helsinki (1975) between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Nixon or his successor, President Gerald R. Ford. But increasing tension and the slow pace of strategic arms negotiation caused a hiatus until the 1979 Vienna meeting of President Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev.
Carter and Brezhnev agreed in Vienna to hold regular summits, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the political demise of Carter, the poor health of Soviet leaders and the initial reluctance of Reagan to have such a meeting caused the six-year lapse.
The future of the Geneva arms negotiations, which were the subject of the greatest discord at last week's summit meeting, remains uncertain despite the pledge of Reagan and Gorbachev to "accelerate" this work in unspecified ways.
Reagan said in his radio address that Gorbachev was unsuccessful in trying to convince him to drop his Strategic Defense Initiative, which is the main sticking point in the arms negotiation. "Mr. Gorbachev understands we have no intention of doing so -- far from it," said Reagan.
On another substantive item discussed at length in Geneva, Reagan called on the Soviet Union yesterday to "provide a timetable" for the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan. The president said Friday that the Geneva discussions produced unspecified "evidence that they want a solution" to the situation there.
Reagan said in his Saturday address that "we are entering a season of hope" and, at the same time, called on Americans to sustain the U.S. military buildup and support for insurgent "freedom fighters" who are battling communist regimes.
This appeal seemed to be a recognition by Reagan that an improved climate of relations with Moscow, possibly leading to improved relations of a more tangible nature, could have major consequences for the military and paramilitary policies that his administration has been pursuing for nearly five years.