The ultimate issue in the Geneva arms talks is whether the United States will be able to maintain the foreign policy of collective security it has pursued since the time of President Truman, or whether the hydraulic pressures of the Soviet nuclear advantage in ground-based ballistic missiles will lead us to retreat to a ''Fortress America'' policy of isolation and neutrality.
The US agrees with Mr. Andropov that the great task set for mankind by history is to make detente irreversible - not detente Soviet-style, but the universal detente defined by the United Nations Charter. As the secretary general of the UN has recently warned, the rules of the UN Charter about the international use of force are being weakened every year. As a result, the world political system is slipping toward a state of anarchy which can only result in war. No one can prevent the escalation of conventional war to nuclear war. Therefore the only way to prevent nuclear war, the secretary general says, is for the nations to ''recommit themselves'' to the general and impartial enforcement of the rules of the UN Charter against both conventional and nuclear war. President Reagan has proposed such a policy, and supports the secretary general's call.
The nuclear arms talks in Geneva are the most important instrument now available to us for negotiating seriously with the Soviet Union about this vital series of issues. The INF talks about intermediate-range ground-based ballistic missiles have now been going on for more than a year, the START talks on intercontinental weapons for some eight months. As the Soviet Union concedes, those talks have made progress. They have come far enough for each side to understand the position of the other, and to see possibilities for negotiation in the pattern of those positions. What is not clear is whether the Soviet Union is interested in agreements based on the principle of defense through deterrence - that is, agreements incompatible with the possibility of nuclear blackmail and nuclear aggression. On the contrary, the Soviet Union has thus far vehemently rejected such possibilities, although the US has said it would'not take such Soviet rejections as final.
Soviet foreign policy experts visiting the US have been telling their American hosts that the new leadership in Moscow has been sending us ''urgent messages'' we have so far ignored - that the Soviet Union wants ''serious'' arms control agreements and an easing of tensions ''so that the Kremlin could attend to grave domestic problems.'' Such a change in policy would be altogether reasonable from the Soviet point of view, and naturally welcome throughout the West.
All the Western governments have been on the alert, looking for such signals. They have not yet found any.
To the contrary, the Soviet Union has not accepted any of the reasonable proposals for the neutralization of Afghanistan. Nor has it responded to President Reagan's conciliatory suggestions for a cooperative solution of the Polish problem, or used its influence in the Middle East in behalf of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. Moreover, it is still busy making mischief in the Caribbean and in Africa. And finally, in the Geneva arms control negotiations, Soviet proposals tenaciously seek to preserve the Soviet advantage in the most destabilizing class of nuclear weapons, the ground-based ballistic missiles.
There can be no substance in rumors of a Soviet desire for a ''breathing spell'' until the Soviet Union joins the US at Geneva in supporting agreements based on the defensive principle of equal deterrence.
Will such an alternative come about? I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist on the subject. Obviously, for reasons drawn from the deepest springs of our national character, the US must and will persevere in the quest for peace, no matter how poor the odds may be. Will the Soviet Union decide that enough is enough, give up its dreams of empire, and settle for the status quo? If the Soviet leadership is as intelligent, prudent, and realistic as it claims to be, it should.