The decision by Presidents Bush and Mikhail S. Gorbachev to order new talks by their foreign ministers on the issue of German unification appears to be an ingenious way to defuse the issue that divides the two countries most sharply--by tiptoeing around an impasse that could have turned this week's summit into an embarrassing failure.
Such talks would renew the pressure on Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze to come up with a workable compromise--but they won't have to do it by the summit's completion this weekend, officials said.
Instead, a State Department official said, Baker and Shevardnadze will continue talking "the way they have been already," meeting every few weeks to seek a solution.
The two presidents' action was a way "to kick the can down the road," the official said.
Baker and Shevardnadze have been handed a difficult task: to devise a formula under which the United States can maintain its principle that a newly unified Germany must be a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while meeting the Soviet objection that NATO is an alliance aimed against Moscow.
But it was not clear at the end of Thursday's first rounds of summit meetings that any substantive progress had been made toward that goal.
Both Gorbachev and Bush suggested that they had moved forward, but neither offered any specific points of progress. Gorbachev, seemingly intent on putting the best possible face on events, was considerably more bullish than Bush.
"We understand each others' positions," he told reporters as he emerged from the afternoon meeting at the White House. " . . . And in this context, both the U.S. side and the Soviet side put forward certain ideas, certain suggestions."
Later, in his toast at a state dinner, Gorbachev was even more ebullient.
"My talk today with the President and also the meeting of the delegations makes it possible to expect major results from this meeting and maybe even . . . the biggest results compared to all previous Soviet-American summits," he said.
Bush was more reserved when he met with reporters after the afternoon meeting. "I believe President Gorbachev indicated after the meeting that he didn't think the whole question of Germany would be resolved," he said. "Certainly we're not in any position to resolve that entire question. But when he said that the differences were--had been narrowed somewhat, I'm taking some heart from that and we'll continue these discussions tomorrow."
Despite Gorbachev's upbeat talk of "major results" and Bush's declaration that he "took some heart from that," U.S. officials warned that the two sides remain as far apart on the substance of the issue as before.
Bush emphasized that he had "stated and restated" the U.S. position on the German question. "Basically, my position is the same as when I went into the meeting."
Senior Administration officials said that neither Gorbachev nor Bush had offered any new proposals for solving the issue.
"We heard some proposals, but none of them were new," one said.
Soviet officials, like Gorbachev, seemed determined to put a more optimistic spin on the decision.
"I won't invite you to expect that some agreement will be reached by the end of the summit," Soviet presidential spokesman Arkady A. Maslennikov said.
The diplomatic minuet reflected one of the age-old dilemmas of summit meetings: Neither leader wants to be seen running into an absolute deadlock, because that might make the summit appear to be a "failure," thus damaging the presidents' political prestige.
The dilemma is especially acute at this summit because U.S. officials believe that Gorbachev, who has suffered a series of political reversals at home, wants desperately to be seen as a strong and effective leader in foreign affairs.
Bush himself seemed to be playing to that desire on the part of the Soviet leader, taking pains to praise his approach to the issues.
The upbeat tone of statements from both leaders, despite their disagreements, also reflected an essential new factor in the U.S.-Soviet relationship: The two countries have learned, as diplomats say, that they can "agree to disagree."
Indeed, the two presidents stated their views publicly on the other flash point that divides them--the demand by Lithuania for immediate independence from the Soviet Union--but without intruding on the cheerful tone of the talks.
"In earlier years, that might not have been possible," said Raymond Garthoff, a Soviet expert at the Washington think tank, the Brookings Institution.
The next step on the German issue remains unclear, officials said. Even within the Bush Administration, there was confusion over whether Baker and Shevardnadze planned a special meeting to discuss Germany during the summit.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said he understood that the two men would meet to discuss the problem "during the next 48 hours" and attempt to produce some results by the end of the summit meeting Sunday.
But State Department officials said that Baker had scheduled no such meeting. Instead, they said, Baker and Shevardnadze would merely touch on German issues during their scheduled meetings.
TODAY'S SCHEDULE All times are EDT 9:30 a.m.--President Gorbachev meets congressional leaders at Soviet Embassy. 10 a.m.--Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev address Wellesley College graduates in Wellesley, Mass. (Live coverage by NBC, CBS.) 11 a.m.-1 p.m.--President Bush and Gorbachev hold third meeting in White House Oval Office. 5 p.m.--Bush and Gorbachev participate in signing ceremony in the White House East Room. (Live coverage by ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN.) 5:30-6:30 p.m.--Bush and Gorbachev hold fourth meeting in Oval Office. 7 p.m.--Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze hold briefing. (Live coverage by CNN.) 7:30 p.m.--President and Raisa Gorbachev host dinner for President and Barbara Bush at Soviet Embassy.