Washington — So far, the Kremlin gets a busy signal when it calls the White House about active resumption of nuclear arms-control negotiations. President Reagan is engaged in a big-struggle with Congress over his economic program and does not want attention diverted to foreign affairs. But world developments keep intruding.
"This is the best 10 minutes I have had in a long time!" exclaimed Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois late one evening this week after hearing that the Reagan administration might push up its schedule of talks with Moscow.
"I will urge that we move ahead quickly," promised Eugene V. Rostow, Yale professor up for Senate confirmation as director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Earlier, in a prepared statement, Mr. Rostow mentioned nine months as necessary for preliminary work before resuming talks with Russia. Under Senator Percy's urging, he said he would try to accelerate things.
Meanwhile, another statement came from the Kremlin blaming the United States for interruption of the arms talks. President Carter withdraw SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) when the USSR invaded Afghanistan.
"I will urge that we move ahead quickly on preliminary talks with the Soviet Union," Rostow assured Percy in an evening committee session June 23. He said he would try a faster timetable (both on strategic arms and, as I said, on the verification problems and perhaps the data problems. I recognize the committee desire to proceed rapidly. I share it. I will do everything I can significantly to shorten the nine- month estimate that I made in my opening statement. This will be my first and highest priority."
The exchange followed earlier testimony by Rostow that disturbed some senators. He agreed that nuclear weapons need control, but continued: "It may be that a brilliant light will strike our officials. But I don't know anyone who knows what it is yet that we want to negotiate about."
From Moscow, which is involved in the undecided Polish crisis, came almost simultaneously new warnings by Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev that nations encouraging an arms race "are, in fact, pushing manking toward the abyss." Blaming "American imperialism" in his single reference to the US, he expressed impatience at delays in arms and other negotiations.
Percy has been a goad to the Reagan administratration before. He told Rostow enthusiastically that the "whole world is looking at you," that the pledge of speed will be "powerful with our allies," and that he would promulgate it "thoughout the third world."
In the presidential campaign last fall Carter, in a paid radio address, charged that Mr. Reagan's alleged indifference to arms negotiation "may move us toward war." Reagan, in a paid CBS broadcast, answered, "As President, I will immediately open negotiations on a SALT III treaty. My goal is to begin arms reduction."
By inference, Percy was asking Rostow why the five months' delay in a matter that seems critical to internationalists; Rostow, in turn, cited technical difficulties.
Reagan has named two hard-liners to negotiate with Russia, if and when the time comes. Rostow fought ratification of the Carter-negotiated SALT II. He was associated with the antitreaty group called the Committee on the Present Danger. In a speech last March he charged that "the Soviet Union is proceeding now with breakneck speed to gain control of the Persian Gulf and to enlarge and strengthen its forces in Cuba and the Caribbean."
Reagan named as chief US arms-control negotiator Lt. Gen. Edward L. Rowny (ret.), who was involved as an expert in the negotiations that led to the unratified SALT II treaty. He resigned to fight against ratification after the treaty was signed in Vienna.
In an article in Reader's Digest, General Rowny charged SALT II was one-sided. He declared flatly: "The Soviets do not believe in compromise. they seek every possible advanage. They are prepared to wait until we give them what they want."
In an interview in April Rowny said Russia will continue to negotiate: "They need it, in my opinion, more than we do. They will come back to the table."
The opinion is apparently shared by Reagan but alarms some internationalists. Israel's preemptive strike on Iraq's nuclear installation accentuated worries. Back in February protreaty spokesman George Kennan wrote in the New York Times, "I can think of no instance in modern history where such a breakdown of political communication and such a triumph of unrestrained military suspicions as now marks Soviet-American relations has not led, in the end, to armed conflict."
Critics pooh-pooh the Kennan alarm; nevertheless, Re agan administration negotiations with Moscow may soon begin.