One is reminded of the perils of Pauline. She was always saved just in the nick of time. So, too, with American foreign policy. It has been in dire straits, with the onrushing train of unavoidable world events surging toward the White House. Can Ronald Reagan pull off a dramatic rescue?
Nov. 22 looms just ahead. Leonid Brezhnev arrives in Bonn that evening. Eight days later, on Nov. 30, talks are scheduled to open in Geneva on limiting the numbers and kinds of nuclear weapons to be allowed in Europe.
Neither event could have been postponed any longer. The popular demand welling up throughout Western Europe for talking to the Soviets, and for seeking agreements that might point toward peace rather than offering rhetoric about guns and possible war, had become irresistible. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt could have been destroyed politically had he not himself agreed to play host in Bonn to the Soviet leader.
And he could still have been put into an impossible political position among his own people had he not also been in a position to talk to Mr. Brezhnev about the possibilities of nuclear arms reductions.
Washington provided that possibility this week, on a rush order basis. The State Department had been working on an opening position for the nuclear arms talks in Geneva. It was sketched out by Secretary of State Alexander Haig in a statement to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Nov. 12. Mr. Haig told the House: ''We want a balanced agreement, one that would establish equal, global, and verifiable limits, at the lowest possible level; ideally zero.''
The President himself then expounded at length upon this negotiating stance in his major foreign policy speech Nov. 18 - receiving an immediate and warm response from the NATO allies, especially the Schmidt government.
Washington will propose to trim down or cancel its plans for deploying its projected new weapons into the European theater if the Soviets will trim down or remove proportionately the new weapons they have already deployed, in particular the SS-20s that are based inside Soviet territory but can reach any capital in Europe.
Geneva will see the first serious diplomatic negotiating between the United States and the Soviet Union since Ronald Reagan became President. There have been private talks at lower levels, including one session between Secretary Haig and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.
There will have to be more of the same kind of hasty planning for other diplomatic negotiations. The theater nuclear talks in Geneva cannot be separated from the broader question of intercontinental strategic weapons. The SALT II treaty negotiated by the Ford and Carter administrations is still waiting either for an American signature, or for renegotiation. So far its terms are still being tacitly observed by both parties. But the allies in Western Europe insist on action toward a binding new instrument.
President Reagan is at the point where the NATO alliance itself is at stake. Much as he might like to put off such major negotiations with the Soviets he could do so only at the risk of seeing the allies pull away from Washington into a new detente of their fashioning with Moscow. The issue for the White House comes down to a simple mandate. Negotiate, or lose the alliance.
So on Nov. 30 the curtain goes up in Geneva on the high diplomacy of the Reagan administration, with a deadline two years down the road. Serious diplomacy is conducted only during the second and third years of an administration. The first year is for doing homework. The fourth year is for politics. Business must be done in between - ready or not.
The Reagan administration is anything but ready for a serious round of high-level negotiating. The position and authority of the secretary of state is still uneasy. He does his best to make and direct operating policy, but is still being undercut or contradicted both from the Department of Defense and from inside the White House.
The Wall Street Journal appraised the situation the other day as being due to the fact that President Reagan has not yet made a decisive choice ''between the establishment internationalists whom Secretary of State Haig brought from the Nixon, Ford, and Carter apparati and the hard-liners Defense Secretary Weinberger took from the Henry Jackson wing of the Democratic Party.''
That view may be oversimplified, but it comes close to the mark. There is a deep conflict over many a foreign policy issue within the administration. Add that the machinery for formulating foreign policy positions on such vital matters as strategic weapons is not yet established. Richard Allen, who heads up the National Security Council staff, is in political trouble. He might be out of his job even before this report is in the mails.
Worse than that, the military program that was supposed to be the launching pad for Reagan diplomacy is having more troubles than spaceship Columbia. Congress has yet to pass the fiscal 1982 budget. The defense feature is highly controversial. The prospects are that Congress eventually will cut out much and even perhaps most of the additions Mr. Reagan has proposed to the military program left behind by the Carter people.
Add that with imperfect foreign policy machinery at home the Reagan negotiators must grapple not only over theater and intercontinental weapons (capable of wiping out most of the human race) but also with the Middle East, which is in a dangerously delicate condition.
The Reagan people have managed to offend both the Israelis and most of the Arabs over the AWACS affair. They have not achieved a sufficiently balanced position between the two to be trusted by both to be an impartial judge of their differences. The European allies are pressing on Washington for a change of venue for Middle East talks. They want to take them away from the Camp David formula, which Washington manages, back to a general conference at Geneva where the Europeans would have direct influence.
And the stakes are high. The survival of the alliance is just one point at issue. President Reagan seems to think that having friendly chats with foreign heads of state improves the condition of the alliance. His allies are in fact beginning to question his ability to play a serious role in foreign affairs.
Friendly chats can make for easier communication between heads of government, but foreign policy is made by battalions of experts carrying out highly complex operations in every corner of the world.