How to bring the superpowers to the bargaining table? The Reagan administration concludes that only a major new American missile system will spur the Soviets toward arms control. Meanwhile, the new Soviet leadership finds it increasingly difficult to have both guns and butter.
Statements from the top in both Moscow and Washington point to a chilly - but non-confrontational - winter for the United States and the Soviet Union.
In Washington, the administration has now clearly signaled, through statements by President Reagan and his secretary of state, that it does not believe a change in Soviet leaders is likely to lead anytime soon to a change in Soviet policies. The thaw in US-Soviet relations which some observers were hoping for could be some time in coming.
In Moscow, Yuri Andropov, the new Soviet leader, in his first major speech, has said ''no'' to preliminary concessions demanded by the Americans. Mr. Andropov says that he is for detente, which in the Reagan administration lexicon simply means concessions on trade and other issues from the Americans.
Yet the rhetoric coming from both sides is relatively moderate. Neither side seems to be looking for confrontation. And both have left open a number of options in the arms-control field. Although the Reagan administration does not say so explicitly, it is clear that the proposed MX missile, renamed the ''Peacekeeper'' by Reagan, could become a bargaining chip in future arms-control negotiations.
Administration officials say it is possible that the Soviets will be more forthcoming in responding to American arms-control proposals. They point to a resumption of talks on medium-range nuclear missiles early next year in Geneva as the thing to watch.
But President Reagan's speech on arms control of Nov. 22 is not likely to please those critics who have been suggesting he make a conciliatory gesture aimed at influencing the new Soviet leadership. In his speech, the President reasserted his belief that the Soviets will negotiate only when they are confronted with an American military buildup. The critics say Reagan's arms-control proposals require the Soviets, in effect, to dismantle their main, land-based missile force in return for shallower cuts by the US.
William G. Hyland, a former deputy national security adviser in the Nixon and Ford administrations, who has never been accused of being a ''dove,'' says the US must propose an interim arms agreement to act as a bridge to the larger agreement which President Reagan is proposing.
In a major article for the coming issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Mr. Hyland says the most difficult decision now facing Washington is whether or not to offer concessions in the negotiations over medium-range nuclear forces in the expectation that Moscow could be induced in return to offer concessions in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in return.
Hyland, one of those whom Secretary of State George P. Shultz has consulted on Soviet affairs, says some administration officials are wrong to believe that economic pressure on the Soviet Union might force it to cut back its defense spending.
''The danger is that both sides will prefer to muddle through - the United States waiting for some sea change that will never come, and the Soviet Union awaiting the next American president, who may not take office before 1989,'' says Hyland in the Foreign Policy article.
''Each will be reluctant to make the first step toward an accommodation. The two sides will increase their defense efforts to break the stalemate.''
According to Hyland, who is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the US ''could gain a great deal by acting to influence the new Soviet leaders as they assume power.''
But the White House is convinced that little was achieved in the past by making conciliatory gestures toward the Soviets. As President Reagan put it in his Nov. 22 speech: ''We have tried time and again to set an example by cutting our own forces in the hope that the Soviets will do likewise. The result has always been that they keep building.''
The President's most hopeful statement was that the Soviet opening position in the START talks at Geneva was a ''serious one'' even though it has not met the administration's objective of ''deep reductions'' in strategic nuclear weapons.
The closest the President came to extending an olive branch to the Soviets was in proposing new ''confidence-building measures,'' such as advance notification for all US and Soviet test launches, aimed at reducing uncertainty and an outbreak of war by accident.
Critics are certain to challenge the charts and graphs that accompanied the President's speech and his contention that the Soviet Union enjoys a ''decided advantage'' over the US in ''virtually every measure of military power.'' The President argued that the term ''arms race'' was misleading because''while the Soviet Union has raced, we have not.''
The critics say that the President failed to point out that the US has led the way in many advances in weapons technology and that while the Soviet nuclear buildup is undeniable, the US has gone ahead with warhead improvements, cruise missile development, and the Trident II submarine program, among other things. Most important perhaps, the US has led in the development of MIRVs, the specialists' term for multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.
But while the arms race and US-Soviet competition continue, the atmosphere is not one of confrontation. Some analysts think this is because the Soviets are now preoccupied with sorting out the succession to the late President Leonid Brezhnev; are ''overextended'' in Poland and Afghanistan; are lacking in new third world opportunities to exploit - and are currently in no mood to challenge President Reagan. Through three crises this year - the Falklands war, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon - the two superpowers have acted with caution. Less than a decade earlier, such crises might have brought them close to confrontation.