Washington — The cast of characters is widening in the high-stakes drama of nuclear arms control. Until recently, it was possible to tell the American side of the arms control story in terms of two middle-level officials: Richard N. Perle, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, and Richard R. Burt, assistant secretary of state for European affairs.
Outside Washington, the two names mean little. But in the capital itself, these have often been the two officials who counted most. A favorite game of the experts has been to determine whether the State Department or the Defense Department was winning the battle for the mind of President Reagan. Under West European pressure, State has tended to favor greater flexibility in arms control negotiations with the Soviets. Defense has tended to take a harder line.
In an administration whose top officials have been short on knowledge about nuclear arms control, it is perhaps understandable that mid-level officials who have spent a good part of their lives wrestling with this complicated subject should wield great influence. The fact that the State and Defense Departments fight over arms control policy is nothing new. It has happened in other administrations. Some people consider it a healthy diversity.
But all this is changing as pressures build from the public, from Congress, and from Western Europe in favor of greater US arms control flexibility. Most important, according to administration officials, Mr. Reagan himself has now plunged directly into the details of arms control decisions.
Reagan came away from the recent Williamsburg, Va., summit meeting convinced that the NATO alliance is now firmly united on arms control. Bipartisan support in the Congress for Reagan's strategic arms reduction proposals, stemming in part from the President's embrace of the Scowcroft Commission report on strategic forces, seems to have added to Reagan's confidence. Officials are beginning to speak of the possibility of making progress with the Soviets on the verification of a nuclear threshold test ban treaty. The treaty, signed in 1974, was designed to limit the yield of underground nuclear weapons tests but has yet to be ratified by the US Senate. Officials say that an agreement with the Soviets on so-called confidence-building measures, aimed at reducing the potential for miscalculation in a crisis, is also now possible.
As the President grows more deeply involved in all this, so does the White House staff. Debates between hard-charging Assistant Secretary of State Burt and tough Assistant Secretary of Defense Perle are likely to remain a fact of life. But when they consider which way the wind is blowing, Washington insiders add to the names of Burt and Perle that of a White House staff member little known to the public: Robert C. McFarlane, deputy to William P. Clark, the President's national security adviser.
A low-key former Marine colonel with much experience in the White House, Mr. McFarlane has played a key role in winning support in Congress for Reagan's proposed MX missile deployment and for the President's June 8 proposal to the Soviets for strategic arms reductions. McFarlane happens to come from a congressional family. His father served as a New Deal Democratic congressman from Texas.
White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III has also played an enhanced role in dealing with the Congress on arms control issues. Mr. Baker is credited by some observers with, in effect, negotiating a deal with a number of Democratic congressmen. It amounted to support from them for the MX missile in return for the new and more flexible-sounding arms control proposals from the President. These proposals were presented to the Soviets earlier this month at the strategic arms reduction talks (START) at Geneva.
Another important player is Brent Scowcroft, the retired Air Force general who was asked by President Reagan to stay on as an adviser after submitting his report to the President in April.
Congress has clearly intensified its involvement in the arms control process, much to the dismay of Assistant Secretary of Defense Perle. He complains that congressmen are trying to bargain with the administration over details that shouldn't concern them.
On top of all this, the new director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), Kenneth L. Adelman, is beginning to make his views known in interagency debates. But if past history is any indication, his views will count for less than those of the State and Defense Departments. What the ACDA has been able to do is throw its support in one direction or the other, thus attempting to influence policy.
Given the diverse needs of this cast of characters, the Americans have ended up negotiating among themselves as much as they do with the Soviets.
There is yet another player in the game: Western Europe, and West Germany in particular. The West Europeans have had great influence, usually via the State Department, in pushing the administration toward more flexible-seeming positions in the Geneva talks with the Soviets on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. was so sensitive to the views of the then-West German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, that an influential Defense Department official once accused Mr. Haig of being ''Schmidt-oriented.''
At the root of the perennial debate between the State and Defense Departments lie several considerations. Among these is the impact that arms control might have on the West European and American publics. From the State Department point of view, it is highly important to demonstrate to West Europeans that the United States is serious about arms control negotiations and has a positive vision of the possibilities for US-Soviet agreements.
At the Pentagon, on the other hand, there is a tendency among top civilian officials to argue that arms control undermines the American people's will and reduces their awareness of the Soviets' military buildup.
Hope for any new arms control agreement now rests with talks on limiting intermediate-range nuclear forces in Geneva, where Paul H. Nitze leads the US delegation. The two sides are still too far apart in the other set of negotiations, the strategic arms reduction talks, for any rapid progress there.
But within only a few months, the US is scheduled to begin deploying new intermediate-range missiles in West Europe. Some experts expect a swift Soviet reaction to this in the form of accelerated Soviet deployment, which might set back the INF talks for some time to come.
According to a recent staff report to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, several issues remain critical to reaching an INF agreement. Among these are treatment of British and French nuclear weapons systems and proposed limits on aircraft. The staff report concludes that neither side appears to have the flexibility to compromise on the critical issues in the near future.
Some Europeans would like to return to the informal compromise proposal that Ambassador Nitze explored with his Soviet counterpart, Yuli A. Kvitsinsky, in Geneva. It would have stopped the deployment of US Pershing II missiles in return for a reduction for the Soviets to 75 three-warhead SS-20 missiles. The US would have been allowed to deploy 300 of its one-warhead cruise missiles.
Mr. Perle was reported to have been one of the strongest voices opposing the Nitze-Kvitsinsky deal. Perle apparently argued that the US had to be free to deploy some of its Pershing IIs.
More recently, however, Perle seems to have suffered a minor setback. President Reagan's June 8 statement on START did not seem to give limits to throw weight (the lifting power of missiles) the high priority Perle insists it should have. Experts agree that the Soviets hold an advantage of some 2.5 to 1 over the US in throw weight. The State Department has argued that too great an insistence on throw weight might doom any negotiations with the Soviets. The Soviets' most important missile force is their land-based force, and an equal throw-weight requirement would cut heavily into those land-based forces. Some insiders were quick to see a victory for Richard Burt in what appeared to be a deemphasis on throw weight. But in fact the Reagan proposal still requires massive cuts in the Soviets' land-based missile system, thus radically affecting throw weight.
Richard Perle would probably prefer a proposal that would place specific limits on throw weight. But the issue has yet to be resolved decisively. The new Reagan proposal offers either to fix a direct limit on throw weight or to reach a limit indirectly by placing a ceiling on intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles.
When it comes to many of the basic issues, Burt and Perle are not all that far apart. They both favor a substantial American military buildup, and this is also true of the new actors in the drama who are increasingly visible, such as McFarlane.