THE Reagan administration might be tempted to conclude that its misfired initiatives on the Iran-contra affair should be followed by a reactive foreign policy - to just lie low the next two years. That assumption would be wrong. Significant foreign policy opportunities remain open for contributing to a more stable world - and for easing the transition to the next administration. The arms race. The most promising area for a successful Reagan foreign policy initiative in 1987 lies in arms control. A new round of talks begins tomorrow in Geneva. As an indicator of its interest in an agreement, Moscow has replaced its chief negotiator with one of higher rank - its first deputy foreign minister - and the United States in response has upgraded its counterpart, Max Kampelman, to State Department counselor. Still, an agreement at this point is unlikely unless Mr. Reagan is willing to delay or limit the development of his Strategic Defense Initiative. He has shown little inclination to do so, hence growing pressure from Capitol Hill and the American public could make a difference. Meantime, the administration should reaffirm its commitment to the ABM Treaty and press more vigorously for progress in the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks in Vienna.
The economy. Getting the domestic economy in shape should be a major Reagan foreign policy priority. The US budget and trade deficits are serious matters. Congress is inclined to go at the job-loss problem by passing protectionist legislation; the administration should continue to point out that such moves are self-defeating; it should press on with its call for another round soon of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Having a new set of global trade rules in place could prove crucial if the current economic expansion slows.
Mr. Reagan is expected to spotlight ``prosperity'' in his State of the Union address later this month. That concept should be expanded beyond the domestic economy to embrace future economic needs and the plight of other nations.
The prospect of another OPEC-controlled energy crisis in the 1990s should be anticipated and forestalled. With oil imports sharply up and domestic discoveries down, the administration should be looking hard at alternatives.
The allocations, type, and overall level of annual foreign aid assistance should be rethought. Too much now is military aid. The proportion of economic aid should be increased. Currently close to half the foreign aid total goes to Israel and Egypt. Most needy nations in Latin America and particularly in Africa get short shrift. Contribution levels to global lending institutions such as the World Bank should also be stepped up. To its credit, the administration is trying to restore recent cuts voted by Congress.
Global peace efforts.
Latin America and the Middle East: The administration should take the diplomatic lead toward peaceful regional solutions to the longstanding conflicts in the two regions. Last week's visit to the Middle East by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy was billed as a journey to assess regional peace prospects. But in the aftermath of the Iran-contra affair it was probably more effective as a damage control operation. So far the US echoes the Israeli preference for direct bilateral peace negotiations. Egypt and Jordan prefer an international conference.
This week's trip to Central America by presidential envoy Philip Habib, in part to discuss a new Costa Rican diplomatic effort, is welcome. The trip's prospects were not helped, however, by Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams's repeated recent assertions that only increased military pressure from the contras can persuade the Sandinistas to negotiate. If the administration is interested in cutting Sandinista ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, a careful review of US-Cuban policy may be in order. In the meantime there are welcome signs of revived Latin interest in the Contadora process which the US should support.
The African continent: The administration should do everything possible to encourage South Africa to seek a political solution to apartheid. Stronger support for Natal's multiparty, nonracial ``Indaba'' plan is in order. The current trip to West and East Africa by Secretary of State George Shultz and his expected talk in Washington Jan. 28 with African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo, the highest-level such meeting to date, are hopeful signs of a growing administration interest in black Africa and a determination to keep US policy balanced.
The Near East: The administration should continue to try to improve relations with Iran - possibly helping economically with reconstruction. Arab Iraq must not be neglected in the process. Neither side in the war must be permitted a military advantage; the US should press for a negotiated settlement. The growing force of militant Islam should be better understood. Aid to resistance fighters in nearby Afghanistan should be maintained to speed Moscow's withdrawal.
Asia: In the Philippines, verbal support for President Aquino should continue at the highest levels of the administration so there is no doubt as to where the US stands. The heat must be kept on the Philippine military to reform its structure. In South Korea and Taiwan, the US must continue to press quietly for democratic change. Japan should be urged to take a stronger global leadership role - in part through a stepped-up foreign aid program.
From Chile and Guatemala to Liberia and Afghanistan, the administration should continue to press harder for improvements in human rights.
Potentially the movements toward openness in the Soviet Union and toward democratic reform in China may be the most important forces at work on the foreign scene. They should be supported.
Of necessity the Reagan administration will have to spend a fair part of this year cooperating with officials probing the Iran-contra affair. Congress will be pushing - correctly - for a larger foreign policy role. But by thinking ahead about the diplomatic goals it still hopes to achieve and by setting itself a basic agenda, the administration should find a way to make its foreign policy count positively over the next two years.