President Bush goes to Moscow this week with one overriding objective in mind: he wants to bolster the domestic position of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and assure his continuation in office. We can assume that Mr. Gorbachev concurs.
It is doubtful that Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were so solicitous toward Nikita Khrushchev or Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter so committed to the survival of Leonid Brezhnev. But Mr. Bush can afford to be magnanimous. His domestic popularity ratings are as high as Mr. Gorbachev's are low. He presides over a nation that has clearly triumphed not only in the Cold War but in the hot little Persian Gulf encounter that established a certain U.S. cachet in dealing with Third World dust-ups. Stability in a compliant Soviet Union clearly serves American interests, as defined by the Bush administration.
Summits still need to be justified by specific accomplishments, and this one is no exception. Its centerpiece will be the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which mandates greater cuts in the Soviet than the U.S. nuclear arsenals and was rightly identified by Mr. Bush as a condition for his journey to Moscow.
Two unscheduled events may be added: (1) The granting of most-favored-nation trade privileges to the Soviet Union, a step that should make it easier for Mr. Bush to prevail in his struggle with Congress over continuation of MFN status for China. (2) A joint American-Soviet call for the convening of a Middle East peace conference, itself a direct result of increased U.S. clout and Soviet cooperation in the region.
Just a little over three years ago, when President Reagan visited the Soviet capital, the Berlin Wall still stood, Eastern Europe was still forceably a part of the Soviet empire and Mr. Gorbachev was still a committed Communist in charge of a centralized Communist state. Now all is transformed. Having won Western promises of economic support just 10 days ago at the Group of Seven summit in London, Mr. Gorbachev returned to the Kremlin to sign a new union treaty giving the various Soviet republics considerable independence from Moscow and to redefine the Communist Party for the purpose of discarding "outmoded [i.e., Marxist, Leninist] ideological dogmas."
Whereas Mr. Reagan had to gingerly encourage human rights activists, Mr. Bush will be meeting openly with dissident leaders of republics challenging the Communist Party for power. What binds these two antagonistic forces together (and binds Mr. Bush to them) is the very real danger of economic collapse and political chaos, a situation all sides want to avoid at all cost. Economic and political reform, Soviet-style, is largely a desperate effort to catch up to reality. In this situation, Mr. Bush's correct mission is to support Mr. Gorbachev as he tries to build a confederation firm enough to keep the Soviet Union more or less intact and loose enough to respond to centrifugal pressures.