Arms talks - slight stirrings

The faint evidence that arms control talks could revive from the ashes of last year's break-off is just that, faint. But the risks of cynicism, or discounting any potential opening for a resumption of talks by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1984 as so much election-year posturing by Ronald Reagan and an attitude of defeat-Reagan-at-any-cost by Yuri Andropov, are at least as great as building false hopes.

Has Mr. Reagan been serious about negotiating? Skeptics like Gerard Smith, SALT I negotiator, look at the Reagan record - the adjourned medium-range (INF) and long-range missile (START) talks, making overmuch ado about treaty violations, and proposing potential new weapons systems - and they conclude he has not been serious. They find it late in the game to propose, as Edward L. Rowny, Reagan's arms negotiator did Monday, that ''trade-offs'' - specifically, the US bomber and cruise missile edge for the Soviets' ballistic-missile edge - could lead to a breakthrough if talks were resumed. Mr. Rowny had apparently been empowered to explore a trade-off of strengths but had not done anything about it, focusing instead on the so-called build-down proposal. Only at the end, as the midrange talks were about to fold, did Rowny broach the trade-offs, and it was too late then to halt the momentum of breakdown.

Still, there is also evidence that in December the State Department, when it was working on Mr. Reagan's January ''moderate'' speech on arms control, was deeply concerned about the ominous signs in superpower relations. At their private Stockholm session, Secretary of State George Shultz and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko could well have exchanged some positive signals.

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Mr. Rowny's statement Monday, that the US would consider merging the medium-range and long-range talks if the Soviets proposed it, is yet another positive sign. Now that NATO has begun deploying intermediate-range missiles in Europe, which the Soviets had hoped to prevent through the INF talks, an INF crossover to START would make sense. The prospect of including the British and French missile systems, raised by Vice-President George Bush last fall, is another possibility.

How Soviet domestic politics might affect arms progress may be even more significant than how the American election affects it. US domestic politics is pretty transparent. In 1972, the banner year of detente, Mr. Nixon was able to use summitry to cut the ground out from under George McGovern. Gerald Ford later regretted his failure in 1976 to stage a SALT II spectacular. Jimmy Carter in 1980 was caught going the other way on dealing with the Soviets, as the Afghanistan invasion compelled him to respond with a grain embargo and Olympics boycott. Obviously any easing of US-Soviet relations would help an incumbent president like Reagan.

It is harder to figure where the Soviets are at the moment. The role of the military, Andropov's health, whether they are for an arms agreement this year or even in the near future - these pose more opaque questions than what the Reagan administration might be up to.

The White House could figure, politically, it only has to give the impression that it's tried to reach an agreement. But given the skepticism about Soviet intentions lodged among many of Mr. Reagan's advisers, the evidence that he is considering a fresh approach could mean the administration sees something on the Soviet side that interests them. If so, and the Soviets respond, the START talks could be revived this year. And even some sort of interim agreement could be broached.

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