President Reagan came to office a year ago promising a foreign policy of strength.
It was a policy whose highest priorities were to build defenses and to counter the Soviet Union.
At the outset, the new President's rhetoric was forceful, and when it came to the Soviets, almost provocative: In his first news conference last year, Mr. Reagan declared that the Soviets reserved to themselves the right ''to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain'' their goals.
Mr. Reagan, and other top US officials, indicated they would not enter arms-control talks with the Soviets until the Soviets modified their behavior in the third world.
But before the year was out the Reagan administration had entered arms-control talks with the USSR and had moderated its rhetoric to the point where it was sounding more businesslike and less provocative.
The shift to a more measured and diplomatic approach was partly the result of a need to placate America's West European allies. The allies had made clear they would have trouble implementing the decision to place new nuclear weapons in Western Europe if there were no parallel effort made to achieve arms control.
But there seemed to be more to the Reagan shift toward what some would call moderation than the European factor. The new administration was having to face up to realities that did not always correspond to its election campaign rhetoric. The world was proving to be a more complicated place than Mr. Reagan apparently had imagined it would be. The President was adjusting accordingly. The administration was showing itself to be more pragmatic than ideological - not just when it came to relations with the Soviets, but also when it came to dealing with a host of other problems.
This did not mean that the administration was any less concerned with building US defenses or countering the Soviets. But it was clear that much of the world did not share Reagan's preoccupation with the Soviets. The anti-Soviet ''strategic consensus'' that the administration was trying to build in the Mideast, for example, had to be supplemented by a greater effort to address the Palestinian issue. The administration's anti-Soviet rhetoric on Central America had to be modified to take into account local realities, such as Mexican influence, as well as the inequities that fed the insurgencies. It stopped hinting at armed intervention in Central America and concentrated on its diplomacy and Caribbean development plan.
When it came to China, Reagan had to reconsider his long-standing hostility toward Peking and his sentimental attachment to Taiwan. He decided against the sale of advanced fighter planes to Taiwan.
A president must reflect on another reality: the awesome power of nuclear weapons. A determination never to be forced to use such weapons must be one reason why President Reagan expressed a willingness to go to a summit meeting with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev.