It is in the nature of great negotiations that the negotiator does not give away his hand before the final breakthrough moment. The audience, however, is not always willing to wait - and trust.
That is the central dilemma facing Ronald Reagan as he moves into what must be the main negotiating year of his presidency. This past week has brought it into sharp focus.
The two great negotiations President Reagan has set his sights on for 1983 are in the fields of arms control and Middle East peace. Both demand close presidential attention, a firm direction from the top. Both demand the confidence and trust of vital allies.
Yet, beset by economic difficulties, by decisions and indecisions on budgets and taxes and deficits, the President has seemed to hesitate, the critics have descended, and the essential element of confidence in the administration has ebbed - if only for the moment.
In arms control and on the economy the presidential ''hesitation'' probably flows in part from a reluctance to show signs of any accommodation too early. The tough negotiator gives ground only at the last minute. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, for instance, is a master of the art. But such a strategy, if that is what it is, can lead to anxiety among onlookers and allies.
Moscow, naturally, is making the most of it all. The Kremlin's doughty foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, has spent much of the past week in West Germany, dangling under the very nose of NATO the arms-control carrots so skillfully cultivated by his new boss, Yuri Andropov. The Soviet Union's display of highly visible dovish fluttering is intended to, and in many European eyes does, contrast with the equally visible display of flailing by the eagle in Washington.
There are some signs, eagerly pointed out by Reagan administration officials, that this period of midterm blues may mark the bottom of an uncomfortable and even decisive trough in the Reagan presidency.
The President now has moved to counter the Soviet ''peace offensive.'' He has appointed his old California friend and current national security adviser William Clark to head a cabinet panel to coordinate US public diplomacy. And American Ambassador to Ireland Peter Dailey, a campaign manager for both Reagan and former President Nixon, is being brought back temporarily to Washington to lead a publicity campaign to try to reverse declining European support for the American nuclear negotiation policy.
Meanwhile, the administration hopes the United States economy may now be past the worst. The figures for 1982 were released Jan. 19 and showed one of the worst performances since the years immediately after World War II - a fall in gross national product of 1.8 percent. But after countless disappointments, most economists now say the national economy has nowhere to go but up. . . if slowly.
In a meeting of the industrial powers in Paris, meanwhile, the US administration's top economic officials signaled a change of course. After two years of battling inflation, they urged their major allies to take the lead in spurring renewed expansion. And they joined the ''group of ten'' industrial nations in nearly tripling the funds available to prevent debt-ridden nations collapsing into default.
In the Middle East, the Israel-Lebanon talks about troop withdrawal and mutual relations at last agreed on an agenda Jan. 13, enabling that protracted process to inch forward again. And Washington has begun to talk up the possibility of wider negotiations reputedly about to crystallize along the lines of the Reagan peace plan.
In this leaked version, Jordan's King Hussein is now braced if not actually to join the peace talks then at least to announce his readiness to do so. His delegation-in-waiting would include Palestinians acceptable to PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Once this happens, the US administration hopes, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin would be under immense pressure at home and from outside (including the American Jewish community) to respond.
Although few officials dare to anticipate a wholesale freeze on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, they do expect a more modest Begin move - perhaps a freeze on land expropriations, or almost anything that would set the previously unyielding Israeli leader on the road toward compromise.
Wishful thinking? Much depends on the American President's commitment to the search for peace in the Mideast, not least at a time when the 1984 elections are already heating up.
The arms-control talks have their own deadline in addition to the growing strains of American partisan politics. NATO's decision, taken in 1979 during the Carter era, to deploy new Pershing II and cruise missiles to counter the Soviets' SS-20s had two parts: The deployment would start before the end of 1983 only if arms-control talks on such missiles had failed.
The snag is that in the years since 1979 the European public has tended to focus more and more heavily on hopes for an arms-control agreement. And while the American peace movement has hoisted its colors over demands for a nuclear freeze, the European movement has grown in strength by battling any deployment of the new NATO missiles.
Hence, the fact that the Kremlin's stated missile offer still falls far short of anything acceptable to any NATO government (European or American) is less important in European political terms than the fact that the Soviets seem to be prepared to be forthcoming while the Americans do not.
The Andropov offer to reduce Moscow's European-range missile force down to the levels of the French and British nuclear deterrents ignores the fact that the latter are ''national'' and independent, not NATO- or US-controlled. It skips over the discrepancy in warheads: three for each of the modern, mobile Soviet SS-20 missiles compared to one apiece for the French and British.
It fails to note the difference between the accuracy and range of the land-based SS-20s and the (for the most part) sea-based, older, and less accurate French and British forces. And, despite tantalizing hints, the Soviets decline to say unequivocally whether their missile reduction means missile dismantling or merely missile moving - an eastward displacement outside ''European'' Soviet territory to which they could later be returned.
Nonetheless, Mr. Andropov's negotiation-by-loudspeaker tactics are sowing seeds of doubt in West Europe that Vice-President George Bush will find hard to uproot during his 12-day trip there later this month. And in this climate, Mr. Gromyko's flat rejection of the American no-Euromissiles-on-either-side stand becomes understandable even to ordinary Europeans who have never considered taking to the streets with the anti-nuclear movement. ''We will in no case accept this zero option,'' said Mr. Gromyko at a 90-minute news conference in Bonn Jan. 18.
Yet, as has become still clearer this past week, the Reagan administration is not prepared, for now at least, to show any signs whatsoever of softening. Its public (and reportedly private) bargaining position is rock hard. Paul Nitze - chief US negotiator in the European-range missile talks and survivor in the upheaval that cost his immediate superior, Eugene Rostow, his job - is reported to be returning to Geneva later this month with his instructions unchanged. Exploratory probes, yes. Actual shifts from the basic zero-option stand, no.
Does the administration intend to offer a compromise position eventually? Is it genuinely bargaining at all? Would it prefer an arms race which it thinks the US can win to arms control which it fears would weaken comparative US strength?
Europeans are left wondering. And West European governments are left anxiously calculating whether they will be able to muster public support for deploying the new cruise and Pershing II missiles if the Geneva talks fail to produce notable results by the year-end deadline.
Taking a tough negotiating stance may well be a good bargaining strategy for arms-control talks as much as for formulating the US budget. The trouble is that until the negotiating crunch comes, until the talks make progress that can be relayed to an anxious public, doubts about the administration's deeper intentions tend to linger. Messrs. Clark and Dailey will find that trust and confidence are hard to maintain in an independently minded and often impatient alliance.