They're an odd couple, this Midwestern American actor-president with his jelly beans and homilies and jokes, and this Soviet modernizer and descendant of a brutal Stalinist peasant past with his pride, temper, and eagerness. But it's more than just personal chemistry that binds the two together after their five hours of private conversations in the ``fireside summit'' in Geneva.
Quite simply, these two need each other -- and they have now perceived that need.
Both men have now accepted the fact that the other superpower exists and will continue to exist for a long time to come -- and that they had better learn how to get along with each other in this last decade and a half of a nuclear 20th century.
This precept is unwelcome to the ideologists in both countries -- and for that reason moderates in both countries now need to bolster each other with success if they are to carry off their desired transition from hostile rivalry to tolerant rivalry. They need -- and in Geneva started to forge -- a symbiosis of moderates in order to counter the powerful symbiosis between American and Soviet hardliners. This is essential, since the only way to break out of the vicious circle of the hardliners' habitual re flex of worst-case military preparation is to build toward a better case by habitual modest success and compromise from both sides.
The lesson of mutual dependency is hard to learn for Americans, who tend to fluctuate between indiscriminate openness to new ideas and bewilderment that everyone doesn't understand that the American way of life is best. But it's infinitely harder to learn for Russians, with their inferiority complex, suspiciousness, and missionary legitimation of Moscow politics as vanguard for the rest of the world.
What better teacher for Americans than Ronald Reagan, a man who now sees the Russians as fellow human beings -- difficult human beings, to be sure, but not abstract liars and cheaters in an evil empire whom he would like to bomb in five minutes? And what better teacher for Russians than Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who had to make a ``great effort'' to be ``broad-minded,'' as he told journalists, to discern what was ``responsible'' in his capitalist adversary?
In a way, to realize his dream of modernizing Russia, Mr. Gorbachev now needs to tap America's armchair fascination with exotic foreigners quite as much as he needs to tap the West's technological wizardry. He also needs to learn from the self-correcting mechanism of democracy (which operates even to alter long-held stereotypes of the Soviet enemy). Yet to dare this he needs to have confidence that what Americans hold dear as liberty (and Russians tend to fear as chaos) will not shatter his world.
Both sides gambled in agreeing to a summit of unpredictable outcome. The two leaders' personal chemistry could just as easily have been bad as good. The certainties of each could have inflamed the certainties of the other -- and exaggerated their nations' rivalry rather than put it into perspective. General Secretary Gorbachev, in particular, probably risked his job in going three months before his first party congress to meet with a man portrayed in Soviet propaganda as an Adolf Hitler.
After the summit both sides are again gambling, this time that they can turn their ``fresh start'' in Geneva into comprehensive arms control within Mr. Reagan's short remaining term in office. Reagan is the one -- perhaps the only -- President who could accomplish this with consensus rather than polarization in America.
They're both ``self-confident realists,'' remarked one veteran Yugoslav journalist in summing up what unites the very different American and Soviet protagonists.
``We need his simplicity,'' commented one West German Social Democrat in assessing Reagan just before the summit.
Reagan is right. Hope is realistic. Despair is an uninteresting little vice.