Which comes first in '85: US-Soviet nuclear talks or a summit?
DESPITE the Soviet Olympic boycott, it's a rare Kremlinologist who doubts that 1985 will see a resumption of US-Soviet bargaining - particularly on nuclear arms control.
Debate has already begun on whether the American President and Konstantin Chernenko ought to hold a low-key get-acquainted summit before arms bargaining starts.
The orthodox view is that a summit should be the carefully scripted end result of hardheaded nuclear bargaining. But some of Walter Mondale's advisers have urged the summit-first, arms control-second approach. Mr. Mondale himself reminded the nation's newspaper editors last week that he would like to start ''annual'' working summits. He would couple a summit to moratoriums on nuclear weapons testing. The moratoriums would be aimed at getting arms talks going.
There are ironies in this chicken-egg debate over which comes first, summits or arms talks. One savvy adviser to two recent presidents recently expressed concern to me that if Ronald Reagan is reelected, a summit-first approach with Mr. Chernenko would hold too many risks of personal confrontation. So he argued for arms talks first.
By contrast, one of Mondale's foreign-policy consultants worries that with either Reagan or Mondale elected, eagerness to start arms talks might lead the Russians to increase their bargaining price. So he argued for a low expectation first.
Differences among these experts may be less disturbing than they seem. The important factor is that both President Reagan and Mr. Mondale personally want to go into the history books as signers of a major nuclear-arms agreement. Reagan's recent attempts to revive the Geneva talks were not just election politics.
But the chicken-egg debate on summits does point up the need for more sensible planning of United States policy toward the men in the Politburo. And it serves as a reminder that for 65 years America has been handicapped by mercurial swings of attitude toward Moscow.
Joseph Nye Jr., a former State Department official and current Harvard professor of government, proposes some practical remedies in a book to be published tomorrow by the Council on Foreign Relations (''The Making of America's Soviet Policy''). Professsor Nye and 12 other scholars and policymakers look at what can be done to make US-USSR relations less prone to delay, waste, risk, and misunderstanding.
They argue for a number of reforms in the way the White House and Congress approach business with the Kremlin.
Nye's centerpiece recommendation calls for a ''Soviet assessment commission'' - a bipartisan panel that would report annually to president and Congress. Four of its members would be appointed by the president; four by the opposition leader in Congress (now Thomas P. O'Neill Jr.). Those eight would choose their own chairman. Each would serve for several years - perhaps a three-year renewable term.
The commission's job would be to assess, with as much agreement as possible, the mass of intelligence material available on the Soviet Union. It would then draw up each year whatever consensus (and dissents) its members reached on such matters as the growth and strategic intent of the Soviet military-industrial complex, the state of the Soviet economy, progress or lack of progress on economic reforms, increase or decrease of basic resources, and changes in the Kremlim political hierarchy.
The intent of this approach would be to give both the executive and legislative branches - and both Republicans and Democrats - a general body of information on which to base policies. It would also give such policy planners a bipartisan foundation behind which to take shelter from the slings and arrows of anti-Soviet zealots and militant peace demonstrators.
Professor Nye and his co-authors trace the wide swings of American officials and public toward Moscow during the past six decades. They point out major instances in which American response to Soviet change was wastefully late in coming.
Too much hawkishness in the Kennedy-Johnson period led to a decade-long delay in taking advantage of the Peking-Moscow split. Then, too much dovishness after the Nixon detente led to another late reaction to the Soviet arms buildup that continued unabated in the '70s.
In restrospect we can see how foolishly McCarthy-era America overrated Soviet military and economic power - to the detriment of hard bargaining on many issues.
Instead of a Jekyll-Hyde split, Washington seems to have created a Dr. Strangelove-Dr. Pangloss alternating personality. In trying to remedy this wasteful gyration, the Nye team looked at some venerable proposals for creating continuity and bipartisan agreement in Washington.
They examined - and discarded - the standard idea of continuity through a six-year presidential term or through coinciding presidential and congressional terms. Each of those reforms would require a different constitutional amendment process.
Nye also looked at the proposal by former Undersecretary of State Warren Christopher for a White House-congressional ''compact'' on foreign policy. Mr. Christopher's proposal called for each branch of government to sacrifice some of its powers in the interest of unity. Nye feels such a compact would not be likely to outlive any one president and Congress.
Doubt about political longevity is, in fact, the major objection raised to Nye's ''Soviet assessment commission.''
Retired US Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, leader of the Reagan-appointed commission on MX missile basing, supports the Nye plan as a worthy experiment. But he expresses doubt that a president inheriting such a team from his predecessor would necessarily continue to use its facts or advice.
General Scowcroft is, paradoxically, exactly the kind of experienced technical expert Professor Nye told me he would like to have as chairman of the Soviet assessment commission.
In view of Washington's record of delay, partisan haggling, and executive-legislative collision on Soviet policy, some new approach to policymaking is needed. The best solution remains consistent presidential leadership and consultation with Congress. But new mechanisms such as the Soviet assessment commission are worth a try.
The next seven to 10 months will be a critical period in Soviet-American relations. At the moment, those relations are on their worst downward spiral in 20 years. But early 1985 is a period when good sense and innovation should pay off.
As Professor Nye observes: ''The Soviet system is at its most inflexible at a time of transition to a new leader. The American system is just the opposite. It's at its most flexible when it gets a new mandate or a new leader.''
In early 1985 both superpowers should reach a point of high flexibility. And that means an unusual opportunity for arms talks - and summits - to succeed.