The 1983 diplomatic year opened over the past week to a scene of policy disorder in Washington. By contrast, Moscow's new leader, Yuri Andropov, had his act in hand and was obviously ready for the important negotiations which lie ahead.
Two vital matters are on the international agenda - arms limitations and the Middle East. Arms talks are scheduled to resume in Geneva at the end of the month. Middle East talks are under way now between Lebanon and Israel, with the United States also at the table.
In both cases the Soviets have a clear position and are working toward their purposes. In both cases there is the absence of an agreed Washington position and hence the absence of ability to push firmly ahead.
Typical of the Washington situation is unresolved controversy over whether the US is to negotiate seriously over the kinds of middle-range nuclear weapons for basing in Europe.
US chief negotiator, Paul Nitze, was back in Washington to get his final instructions, but his superior officer, Eugene Rostow, was embroiled in a struggle over personnel and policy in his agency which made his own tenure uncertain. He talked of resigning. Until that issue is resolved there is no chance of arriving at a strategy for talks with the Soviets.
The same disorder applies to US policy on the Middle East. Here is a case where US declaratory policy simply cannot be implemented. It is declaratory US policy to seek the early withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and thus clear the way for broader negotiations aimed at a Palestinian political entity on the West Bank.
But the talks between Israelis and Lebanese over Israeli troop withdrawals have been going on since Dec. 28 and have been tied in a knot largely by an Israeli demand that ''normalization'' of relations between the two countries take precedence over troop withdrawal.
During the first weeks and more, the Israeli position prevented even an agreement on the agenda. During that time the Israelis continued steady building of new Jewish dwellings on the occupied Arab lands of the West Bank in defiance of President Reagan's request for a halt. The building is at the rate of about 50 units on average per week. The announced goal is to increase the number of Israeli settlers in occupied Arab territory to 100,000 persons by 1985. The more settlers the less chance that declaratory US policy can ever be implemented.
Behind the story of Israel's defiance of the American President is the fact that Washington is divided between those who would like to restrain Israel and obtain a peace according to the Camp David formula and, on the other hand, those who favor letting Israel complete the virtual annexation of the occupied Arab territories. The latter dominate operating policy. The de facto annexation policy is in fact being subsidized by Congress while the President preaches the contrary declaratory policy.
This situation leaves an open road for the Soviets toward the Arab countries. If Mr. Reagan cannot restrain Israeli annexation of Arab land, then Moscow becomes more attractive to those who want help against the annexation. Last week the Syrians were reported to have set up new Soviet surface-to-air missile batteries.
Moscow has no problem about helping Arabs against Israel. If it wants to help them, it can and does.
The present year will undoubtedly be decisive about the matter of annexation. Unless the building of Jewish settlements is stopped, and soon, there can be little doubt that by the end of the year Israel will be in solid possession of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Also, any Arab wanting help against Israeli expansion will be more inclined to look toward Moscow.
The opportunities seemed equally promising for Moscow in the arms negotiation area. Mr. Andropov has made his opening move - a proposal to cut back on his middle-range nuclear weapons in Europe to the levels of existing British and French weapons. In return the Europeans would decide against deployment of the new US missiles - Pershing II and cruise.
It was a shrewd opening move aimed at splitting the US from its West European allies. The Europeans all promptly turned it down. It is routine in diplomacy to turn down the opponent's opening bid. But they also regarded it as an interesting start to the negotiating process. There should have been a prompt American counterproposal framed to be as appealing as possible to the Europeans.
But there could not be such a counterproposal because there is a battle royal behind the scenes in Washington over whether to negotiate seriously over nuclear weapons.
One element, entrenched at the Pentagon, opposes any serious effort to achieve genuine arms control. Its members argue that an agreement tends to undermine the willingness in Congress to support a major weapons expansion program. Their champion in Congress is Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina. Senator Helms succeeded this week in persuading the President to withdraw the nomination of Robert T. Grey, a career foreign service officer, to be top deputy to Mr. Rostow at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Mr. Rostow has said that he would resign if the Grey nomination were to be withdrawn. Some White House officials are reported to have said they hope he does. Mr. Rostow is on record as thinking that an arms control agreement advantageous to the US is possible. If he is pushed out of office, the opponents of serious negotiation can then move into a blocking position against anyone else who might see merit in finding out what sort of an agreement is possible with the Soviets.
Mr. Andropov was in Prague this past week enjoying the company of the lesser leaders of the Communist community. It was his first meeting with his deputies in the Warsaw Pact all at once. It followed after the successful suppression of Solidarity in Poland.
Mr. Andropov has no problem about shaping arms negotiation policy. There is no dissent in his world. He is free to play whatever role he chooses. Right now it is the role of the alleged seeker after an arms control agreement. Right now it is anyone's guess whether President Reagan in Washingtoncan work out a balancing position, equally attractive to the Europeans.
Much hangs on the outcome. If Mr. Reagan could get an agreement with the Soviets on both strategic and theater weapons, he would be able to cut back on his arms program. That in turn would ease his domestic economic problem by reducing the prospective deficit.
But right now the battle over whether to negotiate rages around Mr. Rostow. Until it is resolved, there is no policy and no negotiating position.