Washington. -- It was just three years ago that Ronald Reagan first set foot in Red Square, allowing Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to maneuver Communism's arch-foe into a photo op with Russian school children and the admission that perhaps the Soviet empire wasn't so evil any more.
At the time, it seemed extraordinary, an eye-popping picture. Now it is recalled as ancient history, part of the old business of a super-power competition, ignorance and mistrust that is rapidly being replaced by a political and economic alliance.
George Bush is heading to Moscow this week to complete what some see as the last of that old business by signing a treaty reducing strategic nuclear arms. But President Reagan's successor also intends to plunge vigorously into the new business of granting the Soviets most-favored-nation trading status and, if all goes well, joining with Mr. Gorbachev in extending invitations to a jointly-sponsored peace conference on the Middle East.
"The first true post-Cold War summit" was the label applied last week by one senior administration official to Mr. Bush's three-day visit to Moscow and Kiev.
"We want to move beyond the normalization of trade and begin to think with the Soviets about ways that we can support the process of reform [there]," he said. "And the president wants to sit down with President Gorbachev and think through the ways that we can build upon this cooperative relationship we have in regional areas and think about the security relationship."
Sounds more like a meeting with a British prime minister than a face-off between superpowers. In fact, it's quite debatable whether either the U.S. or Soviet Union can be properly termed a superpower anymore, anyway.
The difference, of course, has come about largely because of the revolutionary changes under way in the erstwhile bastion of Bolshevism, which are providing a much greater drama in Moscow than President Bush could ever hope to bring.
When tensions were high between the two opposing political systems, arms control was one of the few topics they could politely discuss -- and they didn't get too far. It has taken nine years for the 750-page START treaty to reach the signing stage. And as the name implies, it would bring about only a start on deep reductions in strategic nuclear arsenals.
But a major arms control treaty seems almost passe now, a hedge against the return to power of Communist hard-liners that will should prove increasingly irrelevant as the Soviet economy shifts its emphasis from guns to butter -- and housing and highways and VCRs.
The Soviets don't want to bury us, anymore, they want to able to shop at the Giant -- or some similarly well-stocked local alternative.
President Bush pushed hard for the START treaty, essentially refusing to come to Moscow for the summit Mr. Gorbachev has been planning since last January unless the arms negotiators could come to terms.
Neither Mr. Bush nor some top advisers had been enthusiastic about START at first, and instead made a priority of getting conventional arms out of Europe and pursuing a world-wide ban on chemical and biological weapons. But START finally become the last chunk of unfinished arms control business between the two countries, and Mr. Bush has been eager since spring to be done with it.
The White House publicly denied it was using Mr. Gorbachev's desire for economic help from West as a pressure point, but the timing was less than subtle.
When the negotiators in Geneva were still stalled by July 6, Mr. Bush put in an urgent call to the Soviet leader asking him to intercede. A high-level Soviet team was immediately dispatched to Washington work out the remaining differences, but couldn't quite make it.
The deal was finally closed in London, when the Soviets accepted a U.S. offer on the last outstanding point shortly before Mr. Gorbachev addressed the leaders of the major industrialized nations with his pitch for help in transforming his state-run
economy to one that is market-based.
The promises of help Mr. Gorbachev collected from the so-called G-7 nations have mostly been not in cash but in know-how. Mr. Bush has, however, already granted the Soviets more than $1 billion in agricultural credits and is considering other ways dto help them obtain financing for trade and and joint ventures.
If Mr. Bush is able to announce in Moscow, as expected, that he will seek congressional approval for most-favored-nation trading status for the Soviets, the ultimate result could be a nearly clear shot at American pocketbooks for the wider array of goods the Soviets hope their new economy will one day produce.
Mr. Gorbachev is also believed to have been lobbying hard for this state visit by Mr. Bush as a means of bolstering his own sagging prestige at home. Soviet experts here say they are not sure it would have much impact, but Mr. Bush, who took awhile to warm to Mr. Gorbachev, is now seen as one of his strongest international backers.
Another striking departure in this summit is that Mr. Bush is not limiting himself to sitting down with Mr. Gorbachev and leaders of his government but will also make it a point to seek out potential competitors, including Russian President Boris Yeltsin, with whom he has a private session scheduled Tuesday in the Kremlin.
President Bush will also meet with leaders of other upstart Soviet republics at a dinner he's hosting Wednesday night and will spend much of the day Thursday in the Ukraine, where there is a strong drive for independence underway.
In fact, the term Kremlin isn't even used around the White House anymore to describe the Gorbachev regime as the monolith it once was. Instead, they call his government "the center" to distinguish it from the distinctly different voices being heard elsewhere around the republics.
The "Evil Empire" may have stopped being "evil" on Ronald Reagan's watch. But Mr. Bush may see the day when it is also no longer an empire.
Karen Hosler is The Sun's White House correspondent.