PRESIDENT Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will hold eight hours of talks in two days. They will also meet for several more hours during social occasions. What will they talk about?
Mr. Gorbachev has made no secret of his overriding interest in arms control. The new Kremlin leader goes to Geneva primarily to see if he can strike a bargain with the American President.
In recent weeks Gorbachev has sought to focus public attention on Moscow's offer to make deep reductions in its nuclear arsenals in exchange for a halt to the President's antimissile defense program, or ``star wars'' as it is popularly called. While presenting his own counteroffer, Mr. Reagan insists his Strategic Defense Initiative is not a bargaining chip.
But there may be a difference between what the two leaders do and say as they position themselves for the summit and what each is prepared to give to reach an understanding. The President's political record as a compromiser -- hanging tough on his negotiating position until the nth hour -- suggests the door remains open. Moscow's private probings also point to more flexibility than Gorbachev's public statements.
The summit is not expected to produce a nuts-and-bolts strategic arms agreement. But the superpowers could agree on guidelines or a broad framework governing an accord, such as cuts in offensive arsenals in exchange for some limits on SDI testing and a reaffirmation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (recently given a new legal interpretation in Washington). It would then be left to the negotiators in Geneva to hammer out the details.
However, concerned that Gorbachev not elevate arms control to the make-or-break issue of the summit, Washington has also stressed other elements on its agenda. It maintains that an arms control agreement alone will not ensure a more stable relationship, for the arms race is not the cause but the symptom of US-Soviet tensions. Hence Reagan's focus on other agenda items:
Regional issues. Mr. Reagan argues that Soviet efforts to extend its influence in various regions of the world contribute to tension and instability. At the United Nations last month the President cited five countries -- Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Angola, and Nicaragua -- where the Soviets are directly or indirectly engaged in supporting regimes ``at war with their own people.'' He urged resolving these conflicts through political means.