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Urgent encounter in Geneva

HOW should one interpret the results of the agreement between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei A. Gromyko to resume arms control negotiations? That depends upon your criteria. Some commentators call it a major victory and credit the administration for learning to conduct Soviet diplomacy effectively. Others warn that nothing of substance was accomplished and real difficulties lie ahead. And as always when United States officials sit with representatives of the Kremlin, some loud and influential voices claim that the mere act of negotiating with totalitarians lulls Americans into a false sense of security and provides the despots of Moscow with an undeserved image of legitimacy. There is something to all of these claims. It was indeed the skillful management by Mr. Shultz and national-security adviser Robert McFarlane of the policymaking process in Washington, coupled with an unprecedented level of personal involvement by President Ronald Reagan, that made the deal possible. On the other hand, the Geneva meeting dealt exclusively with procedure. The President was correct when he denied that there were conflicts inside the delegation. But concerning the nature of potential compromises with the Soviets on real arms reductions, the State Department and a group of Pentagon civilians around Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger remain as far apart as ever. Those same officials in Geneva who praised the harmonious spirit inside the delegation left no doubt that fundamental philosophical differences between the administration's pragmatists and ideologues were not settled.

As far as allowing the Politburo another opportunity to appear in peacemakers' clothing, there are certainly political costs attached. Yet, what is the alternative: to reject any high-level discussions with the hostile superpower? The world is too dangerous a place to afford avoiding personal encounters between top representatives of the two nations. Also, public appearances of Soviet and American spokesmen in Geneva were about as chilly as the near-record cold temperatures outside. Nobody could get the impression that the Kremlin and the White House were going much beyond overcoming their mutual distaste just enough to escape nuclear disaster.

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The greatest accomplishment of Geneva is the return to normality of US-Soviet relations -- normality, but not in the sense of being on intimate terms and definitely not in the sense of being anywhere close to meaningful arms control agreements. Discussions in Geneva clarified how far apart the two sides are on just about everything. But the fact that they took place and that the White House and Kremlin made a genuine effort to bring them to a successful conclusion means the superpower rivalry is gradually being complemented by a stabilizing second track of negotiations.

These negotiations are not limited to arms control. While Mr. Shultz was arguing with Mr. Gromyko in Geneva, a US trade delegation led by the undersecretary of commerce for international trade, Lionel H. Olmer, was visiting Moscow. Again, the talks were essentially about talks: about arranging further high-level discussions on the expansion of nonstrategic trade. The Soviets unofficially invited Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige to come to Moscow. They did it despite the fact that Mr. Olmer strongly emphasized that whether the Politburo likes it or not, a connection between emigration and trade is -- to use the Soviet terminology -- an objective reality established by the American political process. The Russians should have no illusions about that, Olmer said. His Soviet hosts, which included a deputy prime minister, a minister of foreign trade, and chairman of the national bank, all gave a standard reply to the effect that the alleged virtual embargo on emigration is a myth and that it is a Soviet internal affair anyway. But they also acknowledged that the linkage between trade and emigration does exist and suggested that to the extent Americans see a problem with Soviet emigration practices, the problem can be addressed in the context of an overall trade ``normalization.''

Neither Shultz nor Olmer made any concessions to the USSR, nor did they get much from the Russians except a willingness to negotiate without preconditions. Gromyko's press conference in Moscow left little doubt that in the arms control area the Soviet Union intends to bargain hard at the negotiating table and to miss few opportunities to score propaganda points at the expense of the partner at the talks. Similarly, an increase in Soviet domestic repression leaves no ground for illusions that more trade will automatically equal less ruthless treatment of the Kremlin's subjects.

Negotiations with the USSR are not a panacea. Talking is not going to change the fundamental interests, values, and methods of the Russian communist empire. But diplomacy allows identifying areas of overlapping interest, finding possible trade-offs, and, more important, making the nuclear adversaries feel less threatened by each other. To do that much sounds like common sense: If two hostile parties are chained to the same doomsday machine and both have their fingers on a button, it is logical to stay in touch to attempt preventing an accident. And cooperation at the margins of competition offers a useful reassurance regarding the opponent's intentions.

Yet this logic is alien to Mr. Weinberger. His attitude to arms control continues to be one of provocative neglect. Appearing on CBS's ``Face the Nation'' during the aftermath of Geneva, the secretary of defense opted to proceed with familiar anti-Soviet polemics. His tone markedly contrasted to that of Shultz, who, appearing on NBC's ``Meet the Press,'' while not yielding Moscow an inch, sounded dignified and constructive.

A senior White House aide described Weinberger's ``Face the Nation'' performance as ``unhelpful'' and bound to confuse the Russians, the allies, and the Congress, generating dangerous doubts about the administration's commitment to negotiate in good faith.

Weinberger also made quite an effort to cancel Olmer's mission. According to sources at the Department of Treasury he sent a memo to Secretary Donald Regan asking him to go together with him to request the President to reconsider the trip. While admitting that there is nothing wrong with nonstrategic trade (the only thing Olmer was authorized to discuss), Weinberger raised a variety of far-fetched objections. Among them was the rather incredible suggestion that the failure to bring up human rights issues would ``lower the President's standing among the Soviet leadership.'' Neither Mr. Regan nor Mr. Reagan was persuaded. And, of course, emigration was discussed anyway in the most pointed fashion.

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The administration did well in both Geneva and Moscow. But Weinberger's rear-guard action indicates that even just talking to the Soviets encounters fierce opposition from the Pentagon civilians. The President will have to make some hard choices among conflicting advice if the US-Soviet dialogue is to gain momentum.

Dimitri K. Simes, just returned from Geneva, is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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