To an enthusiastic welcome from West Germany and some of Washington's other allies, the Reagan administration has launched its first arms-control initiative.
President Reagan has sent a handwritten letter to Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. And, informed sources say, US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko will meet at the UN in September to set up formal arms-control negotiations on "Eurostrategic" (European medium-range) nuclear weapons.
Mr. Haig gave the May 4 meeting of NATO foreign ministers here in Rome what the Europeans regard as a binding commitment to these arms-control talks, the sources said.
The negotiations will take place within the framework of strategic arms limitation talks. They will be at a political and not just technical exploratory level, according to the sources. They will begin before the end of the year, with the exact details to be worked out by Haig and Gromyko.
The European allies welcomed this initiative as the Reagan administreation begins to go beyond a general attitude of toughness toward Moscow to formulate concrete East-West policies. The Europeans have been pressing for early resumption of the Eurostrategic arms-control talks that began last fall in Geneva at an exploratory level.
The West Germans in particular have been arguing that the resumption of these negotiations is essential, both to reduce East-West weapons in Europe to the lowest possible balance, and to persuade public opinion to support NATO's planned nuclear modernization.
Under the December 1979 "two-track" decision, 572 new missiles will be deployed in Europe between 1983 and 1988 to offset recent Soviet nuclear modernization. At the same time negotiations will be vigorously pursued to attain the possible balanced level.
At the first session of the two-day foreign ministers' meeting the US explicitly confirmed that the well-publicized US defense increases and the European theater arms-control negotiations will proceed in parallel.
The Eurostrategic and strategic talks are being separated chronologically, however, since Mr. Reagan opposes ratification of the SALT II treaty signed by President Carter.
The SALT treaty -- criticized by Mr. Reagan as favoring the Soviet Union -- remains dead. But the Eurostrategic negotiations will go ahead. And the Americans have assured the Europeans, according to European sources, that if SALT II is reactivated in any way, Eurostrategic arms control will be coordinated with it.
The Americans are warning that there must be no misunderstanding of this first American arms-control initiative. And that it signifies no acceptance of Soviet conduct or lessening of American determination to meet the Soviet challenge.