ARMS control ace Paul H. Nitze has stepped forward from the crowd of American negotiators heading to Geneva for the Jan. 7 talks between Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.
Mr. Nitze is regarded as the ablest man in the field today. His guidance would have been crucial anyway. But President Reagan's appointing him to the prominent role of Shultz adviser does at least three things. It sends another signal that the United States is serious about resuming talks, which are stalled on three fronts - mid-range missiles in Europe, long-range strategic missiles, and space weapons and defense systems. It helps resolve the question of leadership within the US delegation, which will itself be a composite of disputants from the administration's own internal arms control debate. And it prepares the way for someone to head the potential ''umbrella talks'' Mr. Shultz favors.
It was Mr. Nitze in 1982 who, during a walk in the woods near Geneva with his Soviet counterpart, worked out a compromise proposal for the medium missiles in Europe, calling for a limit of 75 missiles for each side - a proposal later disowned by their superiors. Some analysts think the walk-in-the-woods proposal could be part of an arms control solution.
Here is some of the thinking of Mr. Nitze on living with the Soviets, in the new issue of Foreign Affairs:
''Much of our experience in negotiating with the Soviet Union has been on arms control. Arms control is not an end in itself, but a means. The object of arms control negotiations is to support foreign policy and security policy by negotiating agreements that will contribute to reducing the risk of war, primarily the risk of nuclear war. Many other purposes are discussed in the immense literature that now threatens to engulf the subject of arms control and make it incomprehensible. These other purposes - stopping the arms race, saving money, increasing stability, assuring predictability, providing the foundation for a better East-West relationship - may well be desirable, but they are desirable only if they contribute to the more important goal of reducing the risk of war and strengthening the prospects of peace.
''I am convinced that much of the difficulty that the United States has found in getting along with the Soviet Union stems from the contrasting meaning and connotations of the word 'peace.' It means one thing in the West: internally, a state of domestic order, and externally, equilibrium and an absence of war. The Russian word for peace - mir - means something quite different, however, particularly as used by the Soviets since the October Revolution. . . . The Soviet concept of 'peace' (or mir) has come to mean a continuing struggle, rather than a state of equilibrium. . . . Mir takes as a given that there is a natural and irreconcilable conflict of interest between the socialist and non-socialist worlds. In the long run, international equilibrium cannot be guaranteed in a world of competing social systems.''
In a ''live and let live'' superpower world - the Western mode - arms control could reduce the risk of war. Getting the Soviets to move toward the Western concept of peace, restraining their efforts to encourage anarchism and anti-Americanism, could help both sides. A builddown of the Soviet missile force poised toward the West, for example, would be possible.
Meanwhile, Nitze argues, the United States and the West must build a consensus for a dual policy - on guard against Soviet revolutionary totalitarianism, yet welcoming any Soviet interest in policies for reciprocal action.
It is for this balanced view that Mr. Nitze's prominence on the American team should inspire confidence.