Can anything be done to solve what President Truman called "the No. 1 problem in the world" -- control of the atomic bomb? To give up trying simply because of setbacks or the glacial pace of progress would be to concede defeat. So it is extremely heartening that President Reagan is beginning to address the problem with vigor and concern. Two steps this week attest to Washington's growing sensitivity to the problem: a strong statement of United States support for strategic arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union and the announcement of new guidelines for halting the spread of nuclear weapons. Both are constructive steps.
To take the latter first, Mr. Reagan was clearly jolted by the Israeli bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor. Where he once had said he did not think anything practical could be done to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons, he must have been sobered by the thought that, without an orderly system of international control, nations would begin knocking out each other's nuclear installations at great risk to regional and world stbility. Hence his reaffirmation of US support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the system of safeguards established by the International Atomic Energy Agency to prevent conversion of nuclear power and research facilities to weapons purposes.
One significant point in the President's new policy is the promise to cooperate with supplier countries to prevent sales of sensitive technology and material to nonnuclear countries where there is a risk of weapons production. Unfortunately, President Carter, who is to be credited for laying the ground for a strong nonproliferation policy, undermined his own goals by irritating such countries as West Germany and Switzerland. He severely regulated shipments of fuel to them, for instance, in effect holding a veto over their domestic nuclear programs. It is possible that the new administration, by a more forthcoming approach toward its allies -- and perhaps through a quieter diplomacy than pursued by President carter -- will be able to secure more cooperation from them. The change of atmosphere brought on by the Israeli action in Iraq should also help in this respect.
How the guidelines will be implemented remains to be seen. The problems involved are complex, and Mr. Reagan is bound to confront many of the dillemmas faced by his predecessor. Under the new guidelines, for instance, the US pledges to be a "predictable and reliable" supplier of nuclear technology to countries observing international safeguards. Yet it is obvious that Washington would not be a supplier to Iraq even though that country does obey the rules. If one thing is evident from past experience, it is that each nation poses different political and diplomatic problems and that there necessarily has to be flexibility in applying nonproliferation policy.
In any case, the President has an opportunity to build on the foundation laid by Mr. Carter -- and opportunity one hopes will be seized with the same determination the White House has brought to domestic concerns.
With respect to strategic arms control, the President obviously is addressing the worry of West Europeans that the US is dallying in getting arms talks with the Russians underway. It can still be asked whether the administration has yet come to grips with the subject or knows where it wants to go. Postponing the SALT negotiations for at least another eight months does not seem to suggest that the highest priority is yet being given to the issue in Washington.
Secretary of State Haig's speech on the subject, however, was the most positive statement so far that the Reagan aministration is serious about arms negotiations. That is reassuring. It is not morally consistent or politically palatable for the United States and the Soviet Union to try to stop other nations from producing atomic bombs when they themselves are locked in an escalating nuclear weapons race. Efforts to break that chain must not cease.
Mr. Truman defined the challenge. The Reagan administr ation appears willing to accept it.