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The big summit -- and ideas for better minisummits

WILL he or won't he? Reams of copy and reels of videotape have been expended on the question of whether Mikhail Gorbachev will meet with Ronald Reagan in New York or Washington next fall.

No law says the two must hold a summit. But if Mr. Gorbachev attends the 40th anniversary celebration of the United Nations in October, he would have to do some diplomatic acrobatics to avoid meeting Mr. Reagan. It would be at least mildly surprising if the Soviet leader doesn't show up at the UN anniversary, given the all-out effort of the Kremlin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. That war's end and the founding of the UN are diplomatic Siamese twins.

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If the Russian general secretary does skip New York in October, the two chiefs ought to meet just as soon as they have some assortment of agreements on trade, cultural exchange, air traffic, and/or consular offices.

Euphoria is neither required nor desirable. Nothing more epic is needed than being able later on to envision the person to whom you are sending a letter about the Mideast.

Having said that, let me float a proposal for a more mundane, but in the long run more useful, type of subsummit meeting. It's a kind of meeting that could remedy some of the faults of both East-West and West-West summits -- excessive hoopla and exaggerated expectations.

White House and Politburo planners ought to explore the concept of regular, low-key meetings of their leaders' science advisers. And the Western allies ought to supplement their overblown annual economic summits with quiet professional meetings of both their top economic advisers and science advisers.

Let's take the East-West and West-West minisummit ideas one at a time.

First, East-West. There are three principal levels of official contact between the superpowers: (1) normal diplomatic contact via ambassadors in each other's capital; (2) occasional exploratory or preparatory meetings between foreign ministers (i.e., Shultz-Gromyko recently in Vienna); and (3) the occasional summits of the heads of government themselves.

It can be argued that this assortment of exchanges of view is more than adequate to prevent misunderstandings and inch the uneasy Soviet-American relationship toward cooperation. But neither the ambassadors nor the foreign ministers habitually cover in a workmanlike way those scientific questions that increasingly dominate future planning. Items range from nuclear winter to space exploration, from weapons verification to climate tampering, from pollution to orbital satellite clutter, from nuclear proliferation to star-wars technology, from mineral extraction to high-tech. Let's face it. Foreign ministers don't have the training to grasp all these subjects.

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One virtue of low-key meetings of science advisers is that they could be professionally dispassionate explorations of each others' data and perceptions without getting mired in too much politics or publicity. It's true that a Sakharov or star-wars dispute could be used by either side as reason for postponement or cancellation. But such an interruption would not lead to dashed hopes on the scale of a U-2-canceled summit of heads of government.

Crisis-control specialists have often argued for regular meetings of Soviet and US defense ministers of joint chiefs as a means of making military planning and maneuvers less confrontational.

One such joint-chiefs parley did take place, without consequence. But few political figures on either side appear ready to repeat the experiment.

It would be better to establish a track record with science advisers before trying to start regular sessions of military advisers.

Now let's take a look at all-Western minisummits of economic advisers and science advisers.

Martin Feldstein, formerly a member of the economic advice club, says he agrees that meetings of such aides to presidents and prime ministers would make sense.

He notes that on the economic side there have been ad hoc meetings of some advisers in recent years. But parleys of the chief economic viziers of the seven leaders who hold the annual economic summits have not taken place separately from the summits themselves -- those carnival versions of a weekend with the Sun King.

On the science side there are gaps. Some important states don't have high-ranking scientific advisers for their political leaders.

Fortunately, the central industrial countries -- US, Canada, Britain, France, Japan, Italy, West Germany, plus East Germany and China -- do. Some advisers hold cabinet rank. Some are ministers of research and technology. Some are part of the office staff of the prime minister or president.

Whatever the variation, these specialists advise their top leaders and his/her cabinets on the most momentous technical issues of the era. Those include the list mentioned above under East-West summits.

They also include such global matters as acid rain, drought, effects of felling tropical rain forests, Antarctic research, chemical and biological weapons, space exploration, the greenhouse effect, resource inventorying, genetic engineering, cross-border pollution, breeder-reactor and fusion-power technology, and nuclear waste disposal.

Obviously individual leaders already get the benefit of each adviser's synthesis of the best knowledge in these fields. But it would help the decisionmakers if their court scientific viziers regularly compared notes on these important questions. Why not give it a try?

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor. -- 30 --

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