The first top-level meeting between US and Soviet representatives in a year marks only the barest of beginnings in the resumption of superpower dialogue. This is partly because neither side shows much "give" on disputed issues. But it may also be because the Reagan administration has yet to "get its act together" on arms control.
At the outset at least, the newly resumed dialogue may prove to be, in effect , a shouting match, each side making its points without really listening to the other.
US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. had earlier predicted that his first meetings in New york with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko would amount to a "meeting engagement" -- a military man's way of describing probing actions by two hostile forces. Messrs. Haig and Gromyko held their first talk Sept. 23 at the US million to the United Nations in New York. They are to meet for a second time Sept. 28.
Despite tensions between the two superpowers, Haig and Gromyko are expected to agree on a date for the start of talks with the Soviets on limiting Europe-based nuclear weapons. One US official said that he thinks those talks will begin in Geneva toward the end of November.
But the United States has yet to determine what its negotiating position will be in these complex arms control talks. Some prominent administration officials are concerned that renewed arms control talks might result in complacency about the Soviets on the American home front, and thus undermine US defense building efforts. According to one well-placed State Department official, some administration officials simply find the whole idea of arms control compromises "philosophically incompatible."
But the administration must be seen by its West European allies to be seriously pursuing arms control talks. Otherwise, European support for the allied plan to deploy new nuclear warheads in West Europe could dissolve. The allies agreed to such deployment on the condition that it go hand in hand with arms control efforts. The US is convinced that without this new deployment, the Soviets will gain the strategic upper hand in Europe.
President Reagan apparently decided some weeks ago to appoint Paul Nitze, former secretary of the Navy and a critic of the SALT agreement negotiated by the Carter administration, to head the projected talks with the Soviets on Europe-based missiles. But Mr. Nitze's appointment has yet to be confirmed, and he has yet to hold his first meeting on the subject with Secretary Haig. According to some reports circulating in Washington, Haig originally opposed Nitze's nomination to this sensitive position.
The Soviets, meanwhile, seem intent on demonstrating to the West Europeans that the US is not really serious about arms control talks. With the apparent aim of at least partially countering that impression, State Department spokesman Dean Fischer on Sept. 22 gave reporters a summary of a letter sent that same day from President Reagan to soviet President Leonid Brezhnev.
According to Mr. Fischer, this letter asserted that the United States is interested in significant, verifiable reductions in nuclear arms as well as in the expansion of trade and other contacts with the Soviets. But the American President stressed, Fischer said, that this must be based upon a relationship of reciprocity and restraint. Reagan was reported to have expressed concern about the Soviet's arms buildup and their exploitation of regional conflicts. Reagan warned Brezhnev that intervention in Poland would have serious consequences.
Although the Soviets seem to be on the diplomatic offensive in their efforts to woo Western Europe, they appear to be in a holding pattern when it comes to the United States. This wait-and-see posture may spring in part from the Soviet's continued uncertainty whether President Reagan and his advisers can mobilize the muscle and will to follow through on their tough rhetoric vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.
Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R) of Maryland, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, came back from a trip to Moscow recently with the impression that there is considerable misunderstanding and confusion in the Soviet Union over American intentions.
Senator Mathias, who had access to several top Soviet officials, said at the end of his visit that he was "surprised and somewhat disturbed by the width of the gap of understanding between Soviet views and US views." He said he was not sure there was a clear enough understanding on the part of the Soviets of the "shock wave" which the Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan caused in the United States.