Even the pomp at summit signaled significant change. Despite the lack of major agreements, observers say the summit helped consolidate a more stable and realistic superpower relationship.
Reflecting on Ronald Reagan's extraordinary foray into Moscow, diplomatic experts expect the summit to have a long-term impact on relations between the United States and the Soviet Union: Despite the absence of breakthroughs on strategic arms control and the growing doubt about reaching an agreement this year, the talks will go forward. The economic and military logic of slowing the arms race is now driving arms policy on both sides.
While the talks on regional issues produced marginal results, the momentum for settling disputes and easing tension in various corners of the world will continue. Resolutions of the Angola problem and the conflict in Cambodia are viewed as serious possibilities in the near term.
Human rights will continue to be a central element of the US-Soviet relationship. The nature of the dialogue has fundamentally changed, with the US not only talking about religion and psychiatric wards in the USSR but letting the Soviets have the satisfaction of talking about human rights in the US.
Unless something untoward happens, attitudes in the US will change as ordinary Americans come to accept doing business with the Soviets in a routine, matter-of-fact way and without putting everything to an ideological test.
For all the pomp in Moscow and lack of major agreements, the summit helped consolidate a relationship that has been moving toward greater stability and realism. It set a constructive tone that will be harder to disrupt and anchors relations such that it will be harder for the conservative right to attack.
``The main thing is that we and they are now postured in a way to do serious business with each other without being directed by domestic pressures in managing a difficult relationship,'' says a senior State Department official. ``We can now talk and express our disagreements, and when there are raw feelings this does not break down the dialogue. That is healthy.''
Whether the negotiations for a START (strategic arms reduction) treaty will bear fruit before the end of Reagan's term is increasingly in doubt. American officials and many experts in the independent arms control community think it unlikely the administration can work out the internal disagreements and build sufficient consensus with congressional leaders to complete an accord. But keeping a serious process going is seen to be more important than rushing into agreements under deadlines.
The slowdown doesn't matter ``in the long-run scheme of things,'' says the senior official, ``but negotiating under artificial deadlines is risky.''
``I don't think anything will be lost if they keep up the momentum, accomplish whatever is possible, and then pass on something reasonably well precooked that the new administration can look at,'' the official adds.
Some arms experts outside government are disappointed that the two leaders did not make headway in Moscow, setting a deadline and giving the START process a solid push. Failure to do so, they feel, will slow the negotiating process. But it is acknowledged that the administration has not yet thought through the nature of a post-START strategic force.
``To have an agreement that goes to the Senate, you have to have a clear presentation of what the residual US force will look like,'' says John Steinbruner, an arms specialist at the Brookings Institution. ``That is fairly complicated and requires more assertiveness from the administration. It has been reacting to Soviet initiatives.''
With respect to human rights, the President is given credit for enlarging the boundaries of the discussion and highlighting the issue in the Soviet Union. Diplomatic experts note the contrast with the handling of this issue by President Nixon and his aide Henry Kissinger in 1972, who did not give it high visibility.
``[Reagan's performance] was pretty impressive,'' says Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former Kissinger aide who was involved in the 1972 Nixon-Brezhnev summit. ``The human rights agenda has broadened and deepened beyond a few years ago, partly because we pushed, and partly because glasnost [openness] is an integral part of perestroika [restructuring].''
In this connection observers are struck with the President's sensitivity to Mikhail Gorbachev's domestic political position and his desire to help the Soviet leader transform Soviet society into something more liveable. This was reflected, for instance, in Reagan's characterization of Mr. Gorbachev as a ``serious leader'' trying to carry out a ``serious reform.'' It was also evident in the President's remark in his press conference that the Soviet ``bureaucracy'' was to blame for human rights violations such as the delays in letting Jews leave the USSR.
Reagan's comment created a furor. But diplomatic specialists suggest the President was, first, avoiding a direct criticism of the Soviet leader and, second, putting the onus on him to do something about his own government.
``He doesn't want to drive him into a corner, but to set him up to prove that he's in charge of the bureaucracy,'' says Mr. Sonnenfeldt. ``By disassociating Gorbachev from the bureaucracy, you turn up the heat on him to perform.''
While little was accomplished in the area of regional issues, administration officials are gratified that the two sides are talking about nuts-and-bolts agreements instead of engaging in hollow rhetoric. Gorbachev almost inveigled the President into subscribing to a code of conduct stressing the theme of ``peaceful coexistence.'' But Reagan's aides rescued the situation, determined to avoid the kind of broad ``principles'' adopted at the 1972 summit which turned out to be a prelude to Soviet expansionism in the third world, including the invasion of Afghanistan.
``The '72 principles helped `do in' d'etente,'' comments a US official. ``The only principles on which we can operate are the principles of self-interest. Trying to do other than that is hypocrisy.''
Observers say that Gorbachev benefits from his discussions with the US on regional issues. It gives the Soviet Union a voice, enabling it to be viewed as a player on the world scene even though today it is less inclined to assert itself abroad.
The summit's results can be overplayed, experts agree, but on balance even the pomp can be seen as symbolic of significant change. ``Unless something happens to turn things around, we are headed for a different kind of relationship,'' says Mark Garrison, a Brown University expert.