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WHY THE COMING SUMMIT ALREADY GETS HIGH MARKS

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Even before President Bush and Soviet leader Gorbachev sit down together, they already are being graded on their performance at the May 30-June 3 summit in the United States. And the grades are impressively high.

Aren't such assessments premature, particularly at a time when the Soviet Union and many of its satellites are in an unprecedented state of flux?Not really. Superpower summits long ago stopped being primarily negotiating sessions and turned into forums for focusing international attention while formalizing agreements worked out at lower levels of the diplomatic hierarchy.

At the top of the new summit's agenda are key steps toward reducing the biggest military buildup the world has known. Though technical issues have yet to be resolved, the word out of Washington is that the superpowers are agreeing in principle on a treaty that would be the first to require cuts in long-range nuclear missiles.

Also on the agenda are a pact to halt production of chemical weapons and start destroying existing stockpiles, verification protocols that should lead to ratification of a pair of treaties limiting the power of nuclear weapons tests and peaceful nuclear explosions, plus agreements on educational exchanges, oceanic environmental cooperation, customs services and maritime boundaries in the Bering Strait.

By any reasonable standard of judgment, that's an impressive list of advances. Even so, plenty of unfinished business will remain on the table between Washington and Moscow.

Some of the most important goals set at last year's summit in Malta remain unfulfilled, including completed accords on strategic arms, conventional force cuts in Europe, and an expansion of trade between the United States and the Soviet Union on a most-favored-nation basis.

Also unlikely to be resolved at the 1990 summit are major U.S.-Soviet differences over the reunification of Germany and independence for the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

Though Bush has been publicly discreet in expressing sympathy for the cause of the Baltic states, he should make it unmistakably clear in the privacy of the summit's closed-door sessions that the United States remains committed to the principle that the Soviet Union's forcible annexation of those peoples through a secret deal with Hitler never was legal and never will be acceptable.

Likewise, while strolling through the woods at Camp David, Bush should remember that the man at his side is not the sole embodiment of hope for the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe.

While many remarkable improvements have taken place under Gorbachev, America's primary interest is not in individual leaders who come and go but in abiding principles. Principles like the continued evolution away from coercion and toward freedom and democracy based on law and consent. Those principles cannot thrive unless they are allowed to take firm root in the shadow of Russia and inside its own borders.

Meanwhile, whatever else may come from the new summit, it offers another welcome opportunity to build a more stable and harmonious relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Though the prospects for just such improvements look promising, a world that has seen the unexpected upheavals of the past year should be wary of predictions.