Washington — Ambassador Edward L. Rowny negotiates at three levels: 1. With the Soviets at the arms talks in Geneva. 2. With other experts in the Reagan administration.
3. With the United States Congress and public.
The bespectacled former Army lieutenant general seems to think that he is doing well at all three levels. He asserts, for example, that when it comes to the Congress, there is more bipartisan support for the nation's nuclear arms control positions than there has been at any time over the past decade.
Rowny, the chief US negotiator at the now-suspended strategic arms reduction talks in Geneva (START), also says he has made progress with the Soviets on several key issues.
There appears to be another form of progress as well within the administration itself: Officials say that the differences over negotiating proposals that persist among the government agencies concerned - most notably differences between the State and Defense Departments - have become less acute.
But Rowny worries about the American public's expectations for arms control. Americans, he says, have never been comfortable with the concept of ''prolonged rivalry.'' The general contends that with or without arms control, this rivalry is what characterizes US-Soviet relations. He argues that the Soviets are pursuing ''fear tactics'' in order to generate public pressure on the Reagan administration to modify its policies.
Rowny recommends that every college student read ''Living with Nuclear Weapons,'' a book commissioned by Harvard University president Derek Bok and written by six faculty members. The book, Rowny says, provides an understanding of the long-term nature of the competitive US-Soviet relationship. Without such an understanding, he says, American fears can be manipulated to the Soviets' advantage.
In a recent speech delivered in San Francisco, Rowny described what he regards to be American misperceptions: '' . . . Our evaluations of Soviet behavior are often based on our own values; we assume that the Soviets had the same goals and objectives as we do. This assumption is usually unwarranted.
''In the 1970s, for example, the Soviets plucked the fruits of detente; they increased trade and scientific cooperation, and promoted arms control agreements which induced the United States to relax its strategic programs. But at the same time, the Soviets continued their massive expansion of strategic weapons to levels which first met and then surpassed those of the US in most measures of strategic power.''
Rowny argues that Americans were conditioned by their relative isolation from the international political arena during their first 150 years of independent national existence. They wrongly came to view the post-war struggle with the USSR as a temporary phenomenon, he says.
Rowny wishes that he had not used the word ''breakthrough'' to describe to the White House press the possibilities for the next round of START talks, should the Soviets agree to reopen the talks. The word breakthrough, he said in an interview, tends to raise expectations too high.
''I don't want to overdramatize the situation,'' Rowny said. ''If you get expectations too high, the Soviets are going to say, 'If you want to get this agreement, you've got to come to our terms.' . . . I don't want to sound overeager.''
At the same time, Rowny does not agree with some critics of the administration, such as former negotiator Gerard Smith, who charge that the atmosphere of US-Soviet relations has so badly deteriorated that arms control progress is unlikely. Rowny says that Smith exaggerates the strain in relations.
''There's a reason to talk, and we've got plenty more to talk about,'' said Rowny of the suspended START talks. ''We are more forthcoming (on the issues) than the Soviets, and there's a lot in it for them. And they recognize it.''
Rowny had been the representative of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Carter administration's negotiating team at the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) with the Soviets. He resigned from that team in 1979, when the SALT II treaty was agreed upon. Rowny retired from the Army and charged that the treaty was ''fatally flawed.'' The general said that the treaty failed to provide for equal levels of strategic force capabilities. He objected to the fact that the Soviets' backfire bomber was not counted by the treaty as a strategic weapon. And he felt that the treaty dealt inadequately with the Soviets' encoding of signals from missile tests.
A frequent critic of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's concept of detente, Rowny nonetheless agrees with it on one point: In a recent speech, Kissinger said that anxious publics in Europe and America are placing too great a burden on arms control negotiations, expecting them to banish the danger of nuclear war and reverse the trend in East-West relations.