The United States and the Soviet Union have now begun talks in Geneva on how to limit medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe. President Reagan has already offered to forgo NATO's planned deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe if the Soviets will remove comparable weapons of their own.
But success at Geneva will require more than this bold American proposal, and more than persistence when Moscow proves reluctant - as it surely will - to dismantle the missiles that give it a military edge on the Continent. We also need to guard against the danger that NATO's nuclear modernization measures could be indefinitely delayed by the very fact of negotiations in progress, without achieving any real reductions on the Soviet side.
Added to that risk - inherent in the NATO decision to modernize its theater nuclear arms but also to seek restrictions on such arms at the same time - the Geneva talks have opened in the shadow of the difficult history and uncertain future of SALT II. We also face deep European concern about the entire nuclear strategy of the Western alliance, and a tense East-West contest in Madrid over the scope of a new European arms control forum in the framework of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
To direct our search for effective and durable solutions to these problems, we need a careful assessment of both the proper objectives and the substantial risks of pursuing arms control in Europe today. And we need to plan for reducing those risks.
Beyond the straightforward objective of minimizing the chance of nuclear conflict, arms control policy should aim at the mix of military capabilities and reliable mutual restraint that will protect our security interests best. We also have a responsibility to seek limitations that would help contain defense costs, because of the critical need to restore the fundamental economic health of the nation and to move toward a balanced federal budget.
In Europe, we must maintain a military balance that can deter not simply a Soviet military attack but also the Soviets' ability to exert political or psychological pressure on our European allies in ways that undermine Western interests. But we must work to limit the military confrontation between East and West to the lowest possible level consistent with security needs, and particularly to a level that is politically tolerable for our alliance partners on the front lines.
Our arms control strategy, in its political dimensions, should also seek to deny the Soviets the propaganda advantage they gain by appearing to be the greater champion of arms restraint and peace. The President's set of arms control proposals have gone far to regain the American political initiative, but their effect should be continually reinforced, and not only in Europe, by measures that throw into bold relief Moscow's heavy reliance on military power to achieve its ends.
If these objectives are ambitious, the risks of arms control also make it an extremely demanding undertaking. Not only are the technical issues unimaginably complex, involving estimates of future as well as present Western and Soviet military capabilities. As well, the political environment for arms control negotiations, especially in Europe, is highly volatile.
Economic and social strains are severe in many European NATO countries, and political tensions have been heightened by the long uncertainty over the fate of the dramatic political experiment taking place in Poland. In these conditions, governments find it extraordinarily difficult to win support for even modest defense measures that would partly redress the military balance in Europe. Pressures for arms reductions gain immense momentum because they promise relief from these stresses, failing a careful look at what the consequences for Europe might really be.
Encouraged by this apparent susceptibility, the Soviets have been conducting a ''peace campaign'' of considerable subtlety and persuasiveness in Europe. The US, by contrast, has seemed more willing to raise the prospect of war; and the deliberateness with which we have moved on arms control matters has been taken as a sign of reluctance or even bad faith.
Yet careful preparation for arms control is essential, because once such negotiations do begin they readily create immense pressure in favor of ''progress'' for its own sake even if on Soviet rather than Western terms. That risk has been a central concern for American policy both toward the present Geneva talks and toward the confidence-building forum now under discussion at Madrid.
Equally grave is the danger that major arms control negotiations come to bear the full burden of the US-Soviet relationship. This is precisely what happened with the SALT forum, which was seen widely abroad as the measure of that relationship on all issues. Despite concerns about the substantive merits of the agreement that had been reached, pressures to proceed with SALT became almost irresistible because it seemed the only guarantee that US-Soviet relations were subject to some structured and stable framework.
In order to shelter arms control from that crippling political burden, we should move soon to establish alternative forums and mechanisms for discussion of the range of disputes between ourselves and the Soviets across the globe. And to turn arms control to our own purposes most effectively, we must find ways to keep the ''peace initiative'' on the Western side, and under firm control, while still protecting our essential security interests.
There is no alternative to arms control as one of the fundamental components of American and Western defense. But there is also no alternative, today, to mastering the international political risks of arms control if we hope to strengthen rather than jeopardize our security.
Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas is cochairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.m