President Reagan will have to ride out a wave of concern over his shake-up of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Arms control proponents in the United States and in Western Europe already express disappointment at what has happened at and to the agency. ACDA has not functioned at full strength for two years now, and the new appointments do not suggest that its role and importance are about to be restored. For Europeans especially, the move may be interpreted as indication of Washington's unwillingness to negotiate seriously on a nuclear arms agreement with the Soviet Union.
That need not be so. If the result of the personnel change is to get Secretary of State George Shultz more involved in the arms control process, this could be a net gain. Mr. Shultz would be the first to admit that he is not an expert in the field, but he is being substantively briefed these days and will gradually learn. More important, he comes to the subject fresh - without the ideological baggage and fixed positions that make it difficult to develop imaginative, creative approaches. And, he is able to carry clout within the foreign policy bureaucracy, something not true of the new ACDA appointees.
In the aftermath of the firing of ACDA head Eugene Rostow, the immediate task will be to reassure the West European governments that Washington is engaged in a bona fide negotiating effort on arms control. Vice-President Bush can perform this task during his upcoming trip to Europe; he can also sound out the Europeans for ideas on how agreements might be reached, thereby nudging forward the arms control process. Beyond that lies a harder task: reconciling the deep differences within the US administration itself (i.e. between the Pentagon and the State Department) and developing a unified arms control policy. Mr. Shultz, as a consensus builder, may be able to accomplish this - although it is only realistic to point out that, with all the many urgent problems on his diplomatic platter, he cannot do it alone.
The declining status of ACDA, meanwhile, is cause for public concern. During this administration ACDA has swirled in controversy and political maneuvering. President Reagan cannot be faulted for wanting to eliminate the bureaucratic frictions caused by Mr. Rostow's style of operation (he was involving himself in other policy areas, for instance). But Mr. Reagan could have done more to bolster the crucial agency. He could have stood up to far-right congressional opposition to his ACDA appointments. Mr. Rostow and the agency were effectively hamstrung by Sen. Jesse Helms and his supporters.
If a change was necessary to end the impasse, however, the latest appointments do not inspire confidence that ACDA will soon be given a new lease on life. This is not a matter of ideology. Mr. Reagan should certainly have aides that represent his own conservative philosophy, and the new top appointees , Kenneth Adelman and David Emery, fit the bill. But there will not now be the depth of expertise in the agency that more experienced individuals might have brought.
Unfortunately, ACDA seems to be regarded in the White House as a necessary but regrettable stepchild. Yet, in this day and age, should not the United States have a respected department staffed by the brightest experts and devoted to the bipartisan cause of reducing the threat of war? The personnel shuffle may be a procedural move to improve management. But it is to be hoped that with time Secretary Shultz will reinvigorate the agency and remove the stigma. Or - develop an effective substitute.
Ironically, arms control would help Mr. Reagan solve his budget problems.