RECENT events have shown no respect for the vacation wishes of President Reagan and Congress. The foreign policy agenda that greeted their return yesterday was in tumult: First there was the bizarre and wrongheaded imprisonment of American journalist Nicholas Daniloff in Moscow, which threatens to subvert the second summit and an arms accord. It leaves the uneasy impression that Moscow-Washington relations could quickly take a new turn for the worse.
Then the hijacking of a Pan Am jetliner in Pakistan, apparently by Palestinian terrorists, makes less credible a United States antiterrorism program based on intimidating Libya. The Istanbul synagogue massacre raises the question of protection for Jews in other parts of the Middle East, as well as the prospect of other attempts to interfere with Israeli-Egyptian talks. The state of siege invoked by Chilean President Augusto Pinochet after the weekend attempt on his life can only heighten resistance to the right-wing dictator's regime. The enthronement of Desmond Tutu as archbishop of Cape Town seemed but an eloquent affirmation of eventual justice, set against continuing violence against blacks.
Devising a single framework for East-West relations, terrorism, the Middle East, Latin American dictatorships, and apartheid is no easy matter, even without events stirring things up.
Certainly Congress is not equipped for it. The Democratic House is trying to induce a more accommodating White House attitude on arms control by requiring continued observance of existing arms treaties. The Senate Republican leadership is attempting to move the White House to act more decisively against apartheid. But Congress can at best set boundaries. It cannot lead in foreign affairs by legislation.
Special commissions have been convened by President Reagan to help focus issues -- the Scowcroft Commission on the MX missile and the Kissinger Commission on Latin American policy, both in 1983, are examples.
It is late in the game for that. In other administrations, a Brent Scowcroft or a Henry Kissinger would have headed up the president's National Security Council and helped provide the intellectual framework for foreign policy. It is not to fault the Reagan council aides from 1981 to date, or to enter the quarrel over whether the council or the State Department (or the Pentagon) should take the lead, to point out that the Reagan administration has from its inception been marked by a meandering foreign policy.
The most critical issue is still the Daniloff case and the summit. US and Soviet officials are to meet this week to find some basis on arms issues to justify next week's meeting between the two countries' foreign ministers, supposedly to set final summit plans.
Is the Daniloff imprisonment one way to tell the Reagan administration to get serious about a summit? Has Moscow already all but written off another such session? Is it saying it has very strong feelings about state security and is not preoccupied with good relations with Washington?
Moscow's best decision would be to release Mr. Daniloff at once, without conditions. Washington's best decision would be to show full attention to the business of doing business with Moscow.