The floating summit, a triumph for President Bush, put a point to a reversal of American policy toward the Soviet Union as sharp as that of 1947-48.
Three months ago, the Bush Administration was debating whether perestroika was in America's interest. For now at least, that debate has ended: The United States has decided that Mikhail Gorbachev's policies--and Gorbachev himself--are in America's interest and should be helped.
At the same time, however, the summit underscored how little influence both the Soviet Union and the United States have over events that are driving international politics. The two Germanys, it seems, have all but decided to reunify. What remains are the details, though they are formidable. Gorbachev's 400,000 troops in East Germany seem no guarantee of Soviet leverage; indeed, they seem hardly relevant.
In 1947-48, the United States turned from the remnant of alliance with the Soviet Union to containment of it. It did so under the pressure of events in Europe--the consolidation of Communist regimes in the East, the prospective collapse of non-communist governments in the West, and the perceived risk that the Soviet Union might attack with armed forces.
This present reversal also has been driven by events in Europe, again those set in motion by the Soviet leadership--Gorbachev and his apparent willingness to countenance, even embrace, more change more rapidly in Eastern Europe than any sane person would have predicted six months ago. The prospect that Moscow might launch an attack with or through its erstwhile allies in Eastern Europe, hardly credible for some time, seems almost laughable now.
And so Bush stole a march on Gorbachev by wrapping together a set of cooperative ventures, none of them earthshaking on their own terms (and many of them Gorbachev proposals). Gorbachev played his part carefully. This time there was no "Gorby surprise," a reflection perhaps of his desire not to upstage a man on whom he depends for so much and of his own sense that events in Eastern Europe--read "Germany"--are moving too fast for his comfort.
What Gorbachev sought from Bush was not so much help (he knew he couldn't count on much) as reassurance that the United States would not fish in troubled waters in Eastern Europe. And he also sought America's blessing as he seeks more substantial help in Western Europe.
Whether this is the end of the Cold War is a matter of taste. America's policy reversal toward the Soviet Union may itself be reversed, although that does not seem likely soon. And in any event, the Soviet Union will remain America's nearest military competitor for the foreseeable future. But the assumption that the Soviet-American competition was the defining characteristic of American foreign policy is ending--if not ended.
In a curious way, the summit's triumph also illustrated how little the superpowers control events in Europe. In 1947-48, the two were pivotal. They are less so now. America's allies are always torn between their desire that the United States and the Soviet Union talk and their fear of what might result if they do. They were so torn before Malta that fears of "another Reykjavik" were dancing in their heads. But there was also an undertone of self-confidence: Let the Soviets and the Americans have their little summit. We now control our destiny.
The European agenda is a full one. Things have been going almost too well in Eastern Europe, so setbacks are to be anticipated. Economies will not reform quickly, and Europe faces a period of tumultuous politics in its eastern half. In Western Europe, the Common Market will be chasing Germany, trying to fashion arrangements to encompass a West Germany that is confederating with its eastern half.
The United States retains influence but indirectly, through its friends and allies. The trouble is that those allies, now freed from the rigidities of the Cold War, need no longer look to America's lead. They will go their own way.
American presidents have become accustomed to taking refuge from the grubbiness of domestic governance in the high politics of foreign affairs. Now, foreign policy will be more like domestic--prodding, cajoling, reacting. It will still be exhilarating to meet Soviet counterparts at the summit, but the exhilaration will not be matched by the sense that the two are shaping the international order.