Washington — George Shultz may prove to be his own arms control czar. As the US secretary of state and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko huddle in Geneva, attention focuses not only on whether their bilateral talks will lead to a resumption of arms control negotiations but also on who will be in charge of the American negotiating effort. That could spell the difference between success or failure of formal negotiations.
Informed sources say that in the running battle between the State and Defense Departments over arms policy, Secretary Shultz is in the ascendant position. Edward Rowny, negotiator of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), and Assistant Defense Secretary Richard N. Perle, who represent the harder-line positions, are present in the United States delegation at Geneva but are said not to be playing a meaningful part.
In order to advance the President's goal of achieving an arms control agreement during his second term and to provide more competence at the top, the White House has toyed with the idea of appointing a kind of ``czar'' to oversee any future sets of negotiations. According to one source, national-security adviser Robert C. McFarlane approached Brig. Gen. Brent Scowcroft before the 1984 election to ask him to assume such a role, but because of certain conditions placed by General Scowcroft, Mr. Shultz and his aides rejected the idea.
There are indications that the secretary of state, working together with Mr. McFarlane, wants to take charge of the arms control field himself. He would rely heavily on Paul Nitze as a special adviser. Mr. Nitze, the negotiator of the aborted talks on medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe, has declined any future negotiating role but has accepted this key position in Washington.
As for who might do the actual negotiating, experts differ on the importance of changing the personalities involved. Mr. Rowny, head of the US delegation in the deadlocked START talks, is not regarded by diplomatic and arms control experts as a ``heavyweight'' negotiator or innovative thinker. Some, therefore, believe he would be a poor choice to lead talks on strategic and medium-range nuclear weapons, if the two sets of talks were merged.
William Hyland, a former high-level aide to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, suggests that the important slot is not so much in Geneva at the negotiating table as back in Washington. The need, he says, is for a high-level person such as Nitze who can run interference in the interagency battle and act as a clearinghouse for the mountain of nuts-and-bolts reporting that comes out of negotiations, sifting through them and making his own recommendations.
``You need to have a guy who can stay above the fight and have access to the top, and not get dragged down into the [State-Defense] discussions,'' says Mr. Hyland, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. ``You can't blame Shultz for wanting to be Secretary of State. And Nitze would do what has been lacking.''
Following this week's Geneva talks, assuming an agenda is set, Shultz and Mr. Gromyko could have periodic meetings, stepping in to resolve negotiating problems when they arose and keeping the momentum going toward an agreement. This would give the secretary enormous leverage, Hyland says, enabling him to sidestep the more hawkish Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Rowny, meanwhile, while not ideal, would be under strict orders from Shultz to negotiate a given position, he adds.
But other experienced arms control experts see pitfalls ahead unless there are personnel changes. Richard Perle, who has Mr. Weinberger's ear, has publicly stated that he opposes any agreement with the Soviet Union. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, he showed his disdain for the Gromyko-Shultz talks, saying: ``You notice everything was going very smoothly during the period of nonnegotiations.'' Many arms control advocates see little progress ahead unless Mr. Perle's influence is removed.
``It would put us in a more credible position if we didn't have these anti-arms-control people in high-visibility positions,'' says Gerard S. Smith, who negotiated the SALT I agreement. The presence in Geneva of Rowny and Perle, he says, suggests the administration has decided to keep them in their posts at least for ``cosmetic effects.''
Another experienced specialist doubts Shultz's reliance on Nitze will work well. He argues that Nitze, while an acknowledged arms ``hawk,'' has too many enemies in government, does not have sufficient authority, and, although he is an excellent negotiator, has views that are too fixed to be effective at this point. But the specialist does think that Shultz and McFarlane -- relying on such experts as Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt, Kenneth Adelman, the head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and others at State -- could run with the ball if they assert the authority.
The key, it is widely agreed, lies in whether they can maneuver around Weinberger and avoid a major role for the brilliant but extremely hard-line Perle once negotiations are under way. ``It all depends on who is not given authority as much as on who is given it,'' says one expert.
In the end, it comes down to Reagan's intentions and determination. It is up to the President to resolve the disputes within his administration if he genuinely seeks progress on arms control. ``I cannot imagine Perle effectively blocking any agreement if Reagan wants one,'' Hyland sayas. ``My impression is that Reagan has made a political decision that he's going to come out with something with the Russians, if the Russians play ball. That gives Shultz considerable leverage.''