President Reagan called his historic meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva last November the "fireside summit," a description intended to convey the suggestion of a warm diplomatic glow after a long chill in U.S.-Soviet relations. Others derisively called it the "feel-good summit," meaning that it was long on reassuring words and short on deeds.
But last year's summit briefly accomplished the useful purpose of imposing a discipline on the arms-control process in the Reagan administration where none had existed. For a short time, it appeared possible that the administration would act on a proposal conceived by then-national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane, with the assistance of arms-control adviser Paul H. Nitze and Senate moderates of both parties.
In essence, the idea was that the United States would agree to specific restraints on testing and deployment of the Strategic Defense Initiative -- the space-based missile-defense plan that Reagan has described as his "dream" -- in return for Soviet reductions in offensive strategic nuclear weapons. McFarlane believed that this would be enticing to the Soviets because of costs required to match the United States with a high-technology missile defense system at a time their economy was under severe strain.
But the consensus faded as quickly as the glow of the Geneva fireplace. The Soviets balked at the timing of a second summit to which they had agreed at Geneva. McFarlane, worn out by pressure and conflict, left the administration. In his absence, Defense and State department rivalries on arms control, which had dominated Reagan's first term, quickly reasserted themselves.
Reagan's command of the intricacies of arms control is scant. His intuition, usually sound, drives him in opposite directions. He has never trusted the Soviets nor liked the "fatally flawed" SALT II agreement engineered by President Jimmy Carter. At the same time, he recognizes that his administration will be judged in part on its success in reducing the superpowers' nuclear arsenals. Reagan also prides himself on his skill as a negotiator and understands that SDI gives him negotiating leverage.
These conflicting impulses eventually led to the muddy compromise May 27 in which Reagan proclaimed that he would be no longer bound by the limits of the unratified SALT II treaty while ordering that two missile submarines be dismantled to keep the United States under the limits for the time being. The decision confused U.S. allies and Congress but left the door open for further negotiations with the Soviets.
That door will not stay open forever, which is why a second summit is of decisive importance for prospects of a new arms-control agreement during the Reagan presidency. What the history of this presidency teaches is that a crisis, or at least an action-forcing event, is needed to prod the administration into a consensus.
A second summit qualifies. And since Gorbachev apparently is insisting on a serious U.S. reply in Geneva to the latest Soviet arms-control offer before he agrees to a second meeting, even the prospect of a summit may be sufficient to focus the attention of U.S. policy-makers.
Presidential intimate Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) believes that a second summit would involve more than happy talk. "Clearly, the feeling-out period between the leaders has passed," he said. "A second summit promises to be productive on the issues, and that's an exciting prospect."
Reagan probably could bring this summit into being with two decisions. One would be to unify the administration's arms-control process by putting a recognized expert in charge with authority to resolve Cabinet conflicts. The other would be to respond seriously to the latest Soviet offer, which flirts with McFarlane's idea of reducing the Soviet arsenal in exchange for limiting the U.S. missile-defense plan.
If Reagan takes these actions and if the Soviets are as genuinely worried about the SDI as they seem to be, both the president and Gorbachev might have something more to show for another summit than some burnt-out fireside embers.
Reaganism of the Week: Speaking to a $1,000-a-plate GOP fund-raising dinner in Las Vegas and recalling when he performed there 30 years ago, the president said: "If you're too young to remember those days, let me explain that I didn't sing or dance, which prompted some to predict that I would never play Las Vegas again. What do you know? Here I am, playing to a full house."