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A summit, with or without START

George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev are making plans to hold a summit in a month or so, and they would like to use it as an occasion to sign a new treaty to limit both sides' stockpiles of long-range nuclear weapons. That's a laudable goal, but agreement on the final details of a strategic arms treaty is far too important to be affected by outside pressures and artificial deadlines. U.S. and Soviet negotiators have been deadlocked for months over the remaining verification and accounting issues standing in the way of agreement on the START treaty. If those remaining differences can't be resolved in the next month or so, there's no reason that a summit couldn't go forward anyway. The two leaders have plenty to discuss in any case, and the Soviets' worsening economic crisis demands the United States' immediate attention.

The START negotiations have long since progressed to the point that an ultimate agreement is all but inevitable, whether or not it comes in time for a superpower summit this summer. Beyond that, though, the political changes that have taken place within the Soviet Union have made agreement on START a less pressing priority. The real deadline pressure now influencing U.S.-Soviet relations is economic. Gorbachev needs as much Western assistance as he can get, as fast as he can get it, and the United States needs to decide how much, and under what circumstances, it is willing to contribute to that effort.

For the past two years, the United States has lagged far behind its Western allies in finding innovative ways to respond to the economic needs of the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Now the Bush administration's passive, ambivalent response to Gorbachev's requests for help seems equally out of step.

Until Britain, France and Germany changed his mind, Mr. Bush seemed determined to keep Gorbachev away from next month's economic summit in London. The symbolism of the London summit aside, Gorbachev needs to be able to take home an unmistakable expression of immediate Western support. A continuing downward spiral in the Soviet economy almost certainly would lead to a political crisis that would reverse, at least temporarily, Gorbachev's program of reforms.

For more than 40 years, the United States led the democratic world's resistance to a totalitarian power whose political and economic systems were at war with Western values. Soviet leaders now desperately seek the help of the economic system they once scorned, and the future of Soviet political reforms may depend on the West's response. Unresolved arms-control issues and the other baggage of the old Cold War should not distract President Bush and other Western leaders from dealing with the economic issues that could shape U.S.-Soviet relations for the coming generation.