VALLETTA, Malta -- Hoping to keep a step ahead of events, the leaders of the world's two most powerful nations arrived on the island of Malta Friday to discuss the future of Europe in the face of rapidly crumbling communist rule.
At the crossroads of the Mediterranean, in sheltered Marsaxlokk Bay, the guided-missile cruiser USS Belknap and the Soviet guided-missile cruiser Slava, stripped of their nuclear weapons, were standing ready for a unique summit between George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Leaders of bitter postwar rivals who have seen relations mellow dramatically, the two men were poised to embrace the roles of partners for peace. Legions of reporters, diplomats and political activists of all stripes were on hand for two days of talks intended to explore, if not resolve, future political and security arrangements in Europe.
On the eve of what some, perhaps prematurely, have dubbed the first post-Cold War summit, Bush billed the event in remarks to the crew of the USS Forrestal, backbone of the U.S. 6th Fleet, as 'a meeting for your generation and all the generations to come.'
Inviting the Soviet Union to join in building 'a future free of both tyranny and fear,' Bush declared, 'The times are on the side of peace.'
'Our meetings here off Malta will last two days,' he said, 'but the freedoms that we seek must last for generations.'
During a scheduled 12 hours of talks that are to begin Saturday morning on the Slava, continue into the evening over dinner and conclude Sunday on the Belknap, Bush and Gorbachev will size up their respective aspirations and intentions for the peaceful revolution under way in Eastern Europe.
Bush, 65, landed on Malta Friday morning amid a heavy rain after flying through the night from Washington.
When Gorbachev, 58, arrived at Luqa Airport just before 11 p.m. (5 p.m. EST), the weather had improved, although the Soviet leader and his wife, Raisa, wore topcoats for a brief welcoming ceremony.
Barabra Bush, the U.S. first lady, did not travel to Malta and, in keeping with the leaders' agreement to keep the session informal, Mrs. Gorbachev did not plan to participate in any summit activities.
Four months ago, when plans were first laid for an informal 'non-summit meeting' preparatory to a full-fledged arms control summit next spring, neither Bush nor Gorbachev could have forecast the dramatic changes that have transformed Europe in recent weeks.
As the pace of change has increased, so too have the political stakes for the leaders of East and West, who share an interest in seeing that process move forward and are seeking ways to guarantee its stability.
Their discussions could lead Bush and Gorbachev toward cost-saving arms cuts deeper than those now under negotiation at East-West talks in Vienna. While no agreements are in the works, the reduction of tension in Europe gives both the opportunity and excuse to undertake military spending cuts needed in Gorbachev's case to divert scarce resources to the battered civilian economy and in Bush's to battle persistent budget deficits.
Beyond the economic and military implications of their discussions of arms control, which could end with a commitment to expedite negotiations now under way, Gorbachev and Bush will confront an single overriding concern: how the superpowers can establish a constructive, protective framework for the emergence of a new political Europe.NEWLN: more
'It's a summit to decide how to structure the change,' said John Steinbruner, foreign policy director at the Brookings Institution in Washington. 'Both sides realize they cannot control it and to do so would backfire. Things are going to move forward rapidly whatever we do, so both sides have to decide what they can do to internationalize it.'
For both sides, that entails pledges of non-intervention as communist leaders in Eastern Europe are forced to accept democratic reforms that will further remove them from Soviet control. At the same time, the Soviets are looking for a similar pledge from Bush as Gorbachev struggles to build support at home for 'perestroika,' his drive to restructure the Soviet economy, while coping with nationalist and ethnic movements that could become emboldened by the success of reform movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
While no dramatic breakthroughs are expected, the two leaders above all will be under pressure to demonstrate leadership as Bush, who was roundly criticized for his early caution in foreign affairs, completes a leap from aloofness to full engagement with the Soviets.
It was Gorbachev who stole the pre-summit show Friday by meeting with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, the first time the leader of the Communist bloc has met with the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
At the meeting, the pope and Gorbachev agreed to establish formal diplomatic ties between the Kremlin and the Vatican, but John Paul rejected -- at least for the present -- an offer to visit the Soviet Union, citing the lack of religious freedom in the communist state.
After seeing the pope, Gorbachev went to Milan to meet with Italian businessmen in a bid to line up further economic cooperation before heading for Malta and his meeting with the U.S. chief executive.
Bush, dogged through much of the day by crisis as the United States sought to help Philippine President Corazon Aquino fend off a coup attempt, spent three hours on the Forrestal, flinching at one point at the sonic boom caused by an F-14 Tomcat fighter screaming by at supersonic speed. He later met aboard the Belknap, flagship of the 6th Fleet, with his senior advisers to sketch an agenda for the opening summit session Saturday.
An aide said only that Bush had 'a number of ideas' to present and pronounced the president 'eager to start the meetings.'
While aboard the Forrestal, where he dined on lasagne with an added dash of hot sauce in the elisted men's mess, Bush mused that he might like to give Gorbachev 'an idea of what U.S. Navy food is like.' But on monetary reflection -- and in the new spirit of East-West relations -- he said: 'Maybe not. What I'm trying to do is ease tensions.'