BONN -- Is Mikhail Gorbachev coming to the Washington summit as a wounded leader with serious problems at home?
"Yes, and so is Ronald Reagan," replies a senior West German official. "It is a situation that is ripe for disaster if they try to push each other too far. It is also ripe for success if they recognize that they both need a compromise" bigger than the Euromissile treaty.
This official and his French and British counterparts want an expanded compromise that includes new protection for the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty the two superpowers signed in 1972. The view here in Bonn at high levels is that such a compromise now is likely to come out of the summit.
The wish for a deal on the ABM treaty is so strong in Europe that such predictions have to be examined with caution. But Gorbachev's decision to stop off in Britain to chat for a few hours with Margaret Thatcher on his way to Washington Dec. 7 reinforces this view, strongly suggesting two things: He is pursuing European help in arranging a bigger deal at the summit, and he also thinks he has a good chance of getting it.
This is not a case of Mama Europe telling her two overgrown and loutish neighbors to make nice. Europe's support for the ABM treaty as "the cornerstone" of arms control is based on strong self-interest rather than high moral principle.
The theory behind the ABM treaty was that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States could build a completely effective antimissile screen. Each superpower could field enough new missiles to overwhelm the other's interceptor systems, and the inevitable race to puncture the screen was seen as dangerously destabilizing.
But the Soviet Union, without the restraints of the ABM treaty, could build an antimissile system that could contain the medium-sized nuclear arsenals of Britain and France. These countries also share West Germany's fear that American and Soviet generals armed with missile interceptor systems for their countries might be more tempted than they are now to try to fight limited wars in Europe.
Gorbachev, who apparently hit it off with Mrs. Thatcher in private in Moscow last March despite her routinely combative public declarations, may be playing for her help not so much at the summit but in the crucial period afterward when the meaning of what he has or has not agreed to with Reagan is being sorted out.
Like most political compromises, a summit deal beyond the treaty to scrap medium- and shorter-range nuclear missiles will not emerge neatly or in clear focus. Policy-makers on this side of the Atlantic would be satisfied, the Bonn official suggests, with a joint statement committing the superpowers to continue to observe the treaty for another seven to 10 years, even if it skirts the contentious issue of "narrow" vs. "broad" interpretations of the treaty.
Reagan would thus not be required to abandon his effort to reinterpret the treaty to permit testing and deployment of key elements of his proposed space-based missile shield, the Strategic Defense Initiative. Gorbachev's insistence that Reagan formally renounce the broad interpretation of the ABM treaty led to the abrupt adjournment of the Reykjavik summit last year.
But some Allied policy-makers are beginning to feel that such a Soviet concession might quickly turn out to be more apparent than real, a development Gorbachev appears to have understood. A successful summit ending with a vague but new joint endorsement of the ABM treaty would probably lead quickly to action in Congress to bind the United States to the traditional interpretation of the Nixon-Brezhnev accord.
If what German officials are hearing is correct, Gorbachev will take the high ground in England and in Washington, stressing that he has significantly moderated the Soviet position on SDI and the ABM treaty and now needs movement from Reagan. He will point to having gone from ruling out any research or testing in space to wanting to negotiate with Reagan what kind of research in space is acceptable.
But that approach could backfire if Reagan concludes that Gorbachev is on the ropes more than Reagan is.
"This is no time for power plays," says our acquaintance, the German official. "Gorbachev tried it during the visit of George Shultz to Moscow, and the Americans were right to say no deal. He is still strong enough at home to do the same if Reagan pushes him too hard."