IT came as both a surprise and a disappointment at the White House last week when Mikhail Gorbachev declined to set a date for a trip to Washington. He wouldn't even make it definite that he would come at all. (This week brings a new turn: Perhaps he is coming after all.) The White House expected a date in November. It hoped a firm date would be set - for obvious reasons.
Any summit involving the new leader of one of the world's two greatest powers is bound to be spectacular. It means vast phalanxes of reporters surrounding the ``great men.'' It means front-page stories. It means big chunks of the evening television news programs.
A summit with Mr. Gorbachev was desired by, and desirable for, Ronald Reagan before the bottom fell out from under the stock market. It became immensely more desirable from the moment that event occurred Oct. 19.
By Oct. 23, after a week of sinking values on the security exchanges of the whole world, it became the one thing that could most quickly put Mr. Reagan at the center of a ``good news'' story and divert attention from the awesome budget problem he now faces.
Hence there should have been no surprise when on Oct. 23 the Russians told Secretary of State George Shultz in Moscow that they were not quite ready to set a firm date. From time immemorial the Russians have been both excellent chess players and highly skilled diplomats. Any professional diplomat would have been astonished had they failed to take advantage of the opportunity events have given them.
The ability to fix a date for a summit had, by Oct. 23, become bargaining power. Reagan wanted it. They no longer needed it. Holding a summit is by now almost worthless to Gorbachev. Why give it away for nothing? No trained diplomat would have done so. He had no reason to do Reagan a free favor.
The holding of a summit had become a pawn in a vast negotiation, not only over weapons, but even over the future of the relationship of the Soviet Union to the outside world.
The pawn has taken the form of the definition and duration of existing limits on antiballistic missiles. There is a ratified treaty, and there are two differing interpretations on the restraints it puts on deploying antiballistic missiles.
The Russians, who originally favored a flexible interpretation, now want a narrow interpretation. The Americans originally favored a tight interpretation, but Reagan now wants the looser one. And, above all, the Russians now want the narrow interpretation to be good for 10 years. In practical terms they want Reagan to agree that there will be no deployment of any of his new ``star wars'' (Strategic Defense Initiative) systems for at least 10 years.
It became obvious from the moment the stock markets broke that Reagan was not going to get the money he wants for early deployment of star wars during his presidency. The Congress was reluctant to spend money on star wars before the market broke. In the tidal wave of demand for a balanced budget now washing over Washington, there isn't a chance of Congress's voting funds for such a purpose.
Reagan will get a sufficient sum for continuing research and testing for star wars. He will not get the large sums he wants to set up a production program on any star-wars component. In other words, the Russians will get the restraint they want on star wars without paying a price for it.
Add that there is an ancient (and cruel) adage in diplomacy: ``Never do business with a dying king.'' We use the nicer phrase, ``lame duck.'' Reagan still has another 14 months of his presidency, but in terms of bargaining over arms limitations, he is already of minor importance to the Russians.
They have little to lose by waiting for his successor. If he wants to do business with them, and enjoy playing a star role in a summit spectacular, he is going to have to ease up on his star-wars stance. He might as well. It has ceased to have real bargaining power in his hands.