The Western alliance is struggling to get its arms-control act together before a March 28 deadline, when the negotiations in Geneva adjourn. Right now, differences still exist over basic tactics - both in Washington and in Europe. Two NATO meetings in the next few days are likely to prove crucial.
The European members of NATO are pressing the Reagan administration to soften its current position on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). Specifically, they are urging Washington to move away from its hard-line ''zero option'' proposal and come up with a new ''interim'' compromise instead.
(The zero option calls for removal of all Soviet INF missiles targeted on Europe in exchange for NATO's foregoing its planned deployment of new American missiles. An ''interim'' proposal would accept limited deployment for both sides , pending further attempts to reach zero.)
The Europeans say that an interim offer must be made before the INF talks adjourn March 28 if such a proposal is to have any possibility of halting, delaying, or curtailing the deployment of the new US missiles in Europe due to start later this year. Time running out for NATO
The arms talks will resume in June. The Europeans argue that the intervening two months could be used to study such compromise offers.
But time is running out for NATO to agree on any such proposal. Hence the importance of the alliance's two key nuclear strategy sessions over the next few days in Brussels and in Algarve, Portugal - sandwiched as they are between last week's West German elections and the adjournment of the Geneva talks.
The Reagan administration is said to be reviewing its position on the nuclear negotiations. While a number of NATO observers here expect Washington eventually to move away from its zero option, few feel it will do so immediately.
At the same time, even European officials are divided. While their governments press the US to make a prompt interim offer to Moscow, some of these European officials privately advocate making no such change in tactics at this time.
These officials believe that only if the American negotiators hold firm to the zero-option proposal made by President Reagan in November 1981 will the Soviet Union begin to move seriously toward making additional concessions on reducing its SS-20 missiles aimed against Western Europe. This European division mirrors the split said to exist within policy circles at the US departments of State and Defense. West Germans review their options
Meanwhile, the West German government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, according to sources in Bonn, has just reviewed a whole range of options. These options included canceling the 108 US Pershing II missiles (but not the 464 cruise missiles) scheduled for deployment beginning late this year. That nondeployment option reportedly was rejected.
Despite their March 6 election victory against Socialist and other opponents of the US missiles, Chancellor Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher have nevertheless publicly urged President Reagan to show flexibility in the US position. This pressure on Mr. Reagan was backed by the British and Italian governments, other countries where US missiles are to be stationed.
This West German-led coalition is said by experts to be prepared to continue to press its views on American officials at the NATO meetings. The first meeting , March 18, involves a group of top-echelon officials that will review nuclear issues and the disarmament negotiations. The second, next week, is a semiannual session of the NATO nuclear planning group. US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and most of his NATO ministerial colleagues are scheduled to attend.
Chancellor Kohl is said to favor pursuing plans for the deployment of the Pershing II missiles in West Germany in order to pressure the Soviet Union, which is seriously concerned about the weapon. But West Europeans nonetheless would still like to see a US-Soviet accord by late this year that would possibly put a reduced ceiling on their respective intermediate-range arsenals. And, despite public demonstrations and agitation for canceling the NATO deployment, many NATO officials would prefer to see some of the American missiles installed to correct what they see as an imbalance in favor of the Soviet Union.