Arms control at this stage appears more and more to be a will-o'-the-wisp. And that increases the likelihood of the world entering a new technological era denuded of even the hard-won constraints of the 1970s.
This is the picture that emerges from interviews with specialists on arms control and Soviet affairs in Washington, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, Bonn , and elsewhere.
The reasons for pessimism include:
* The low state of overall United States-Soviet relations.
* The current timing of leadership shifts, in which both sides deem it better to wait: Moscow to see if Ronald Reagan really is going to get reelected, Washington to see if a physically frail Yuri Andropov is going to be replaced by a younger successor.
* The timing of technology, with Washington confident that the current dynamic changes in computer and ''stealth'' technology in particular will keep the inventive US some five years ahead of the Soviet Union - and with Washington therefore resistant to bilateral inhibitions at this point.
In a way the key issue is timing: the axiom that timing is all in love and war applies 10-fold to arms control. The ''window of opportunity'' for arms control is a rare conjunction of perceived equality and stalemate. Thus, however much nations may realize theoretically that security in the nuclear age must be mutual (in order to avoid joint suicide), they instinctively trust their unilateral buildups more than bilateral restraints; that is, until forced to a contrary conclusion by overwhelming evidence.
A nation that believes it is ahead and will stay ahead has little incentive to build down to equality. A nation that sees itself as behind does not want to restrict its potential for catching up.
For a period of perhaps nine months, between summer 1982 and spring 1983, it did look as if there might be an arms-control window in ''Euromissiles.'' The initial hope of the optimists was that the elderly Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev might like to achieve a last historical triumph and have an American-Soviet summit before passing the Kremlin leadership on to his successors. Then, after Brezhnev's death in November, there was a lesser hope that the new General Secretary Yuri Andropov might want to set a quick stamp of his own on foreign policy.
The hope centered on Brezhnev was shattered when the June 1982 ''walk in the woods'' exploratory package was never approved by the Brezhnev leadership. This package, worked out during a summer stroll in the Swiss foothills by the chief American and Soviet Euromissile negotiators, Paul Nitze and Yuli Kvitsinsky, involved six basic elements.
First, the Soviet Union would reduce its 5,000-kilometer-range, three-warhead mobile SS-20s targeted at Western Europe from the then 250 missiles, to 75 missiles, with 225 warheads.
Second, NATO and the US would refrain from deploying the planned 1,750 -kilometer-range, highly accurate, Pershing II, and would deploy no more than 75 four-unit ''launchers'' of the accurate but slow 2,500-kilometer cruise missiles , with 300 warheads.
Third, the Soviet Union would deploy no more than the then-existing 90 SS-20s in Soviet Asian territory.
Fourth, only the primarily nuclear-armed aircraft (and not dual-capable aircraft for either nuclear or conventional loading) would be limited - to 150 each for American F-111s and Soviet land-configured Backfires, Blinders, and Badgers in Europe.
Fifth, shorter-range missiles in Europe with ranges between 500 and 1,000 kilometers would be frozen in numbers, ranges, and warheads.
Sixth, French and British missiles capable of reaching the Soviet Union would not be counted in the Euromissile balance.
This exploratory package reportedly never got all the way to the top on the Soviet side. No one in the Kremlin hierarchy was willing to authorize negotiation on it - and since the Soviet side wanted to do its own probing in its home capital before the American side did the same in Washington, the Soviet failure to proceed effectively relieved the Reagan administration of any need to accept or reject it.
Objections to the package were registered in Washington (on some points, and arms control and disarmament director Eugene Rostow was fired over the attempt), but the initial refusal to take the package as a basis of negotiation was Soviet.
In the West there remained some faint hope - based on the change in West Germany from a Social-Democratic to a conservative chancellor - that Soviet interest in a compromise might be rekindled as it became clear that West European missile deployments would go ahead if there were no arms-control agreement.
The continuing incentive to the Kremlin was thought to arise from a technological and political combination. It was assumed the Russians were far less worried about the slow cruises than about the Pershing II ballistic missiles, which shared with the cruises an accuracy far surpassing Soviet accuracy but also could reach targets in the western Soviet Union within some 12 minutes of launch.
Therefore, the reasoning continued, Moscow would want to negotiate a deal with the West that would at least put a low ceiling on new NATO deployments (and might bar the Pershing II altogether). Such a deal could better be negotiated before the first stationing - and so the Kremlin was expected by some Westerners to make a new compromise offer sometime between the March 1983 German election and the summer recess of the Euromissile arms-control talks.
Since the Western goal was moving to parity from Soviet land-based Euromissile superiority (or even monopoly, if France's 18 SSBS land-based missiles are discounted), such a deal would have required an unprecedented step: Soviet dismantling of expensive, modern, already deployed Soviet missiles even as the West was installing new missiles. Yet Westerners hoped the Soviets would in the end deem this a better alternative than a costly arms race in new technology.
Spring and summer of 1983 turned out to be an unpropitious time for such a radical Soviet decision, however.
Andropov had his hands full consolidating his power and overcoming suspicion of him by party apparatchiks. Moreover, the wind-down period of Reagan's first term was approaching. Given Reagan's deliberate confrontation with the Soviet Union, Moscow was not eager to hand the American President an arms control agreement that could help reelect him. Various Soviet specialists began signaling to American contacts that the Kremlin would be unlikely to move on arms control until Reagan's reelection was clearly in the bag. Then the Kremlin might figure it would get better terms with the man it would have to deal with for the next four years before that reelection. But his reelection would first have to be a sure thing. Against this background the Soviet Union hardened its position in 1983 (at least relative to the ''walk in the woods.'') Beyond ignoring the walk's specific numbers and non-circumvention clause for shorter-range missiles, it went back to insisting that the French and British longer-range missiles be included in the Euromissile balance. And although it agreed to move from missiles to warheads as the counting unit, this quickly turned out not to compensate for the three-warhead SS-20 as against the single-warhead Pershings and cruises - but rather to lead to an increased Soviet tally of existing British and French warheads that would preclude any new NATO missiles whatsoever. In addition, Moscow backed off from limiting its Asian-based SS-20s and from destroying all SS-20s in excess of any agreed ceiling (rather than just moving them beyond the Urals, where they could quickly be moved back again to within European target range).Moscow also returned to insisting that the extremely complex issue of dual-capable aircraft be a part of any Euromissile agreement - and that negotiation in this area be based on skewed Soviet figures that excluded the Soviet equivalents of whole categories of American ''forward-based'' planes. And it adopted a more threatening tone at the Euromissile negotiations in Geneva. The upshot, as one veteran European diplomat analyzes it, is that Moscow will not want to negotiate seriously on Euromissiles until NATO deployments have built up to a point - in perhaps three years or so - at which any agreement on approximate parity could be sweetened with symbolic Western as well as Soviet dismantling of already existing weapons. In the meantime Moscow has no interest in ''legitimizing'' the forthcoming NATO deployments by reaching any understanding that would permit even some Western stationing. The Kremlin would much rather make the British and especially the West German governments pay the full political price of massive domestic demonstrations against the missiles. As this evolution (or ossification) was apparently going on in the Kremlin's thinking about Euromissiles, a somewhat contrary evolution was going on in Washington's thinking about the strategic balance. This Washington shift resulted from the political impact of the freeze movement in the US and from President Reagan's consulting on missile issues for the first time not just hard-line Reagan loyalists but professional, nonpartisan advisers in the Scowcroft Commission. The freeze movement and its supporters in Congress threatened to kill the MX program unless Reagan showed more interest in arms control and stabilization of the arms race. And the Scowcroft Commission came up with a report that endorsed 100 MX missiles - but at the same time recommended a move toward a more negotiable US position at the strategic arms reduction talks (START) in Geneva. The commission also called for a move back to single-warhead missiles to reverse the instability induced by multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV) warheads. MIRVs, an American invention that pulled the US well ahead of the Soviet Union in strategic warheads in the 1970s, have come back to haunt the US since the Soviet Union developed them too and put more of them on the far heavier and more numerous Soviet land-based missiles. It was this MIRV balance that opened a theoretical ''window of vulnerability,'' since in any surprise attack a very few Soviet missiles could wipe out a high percentage of American land-based missiles - a potentially dangerous temptation in time of crisis. In return for funding the MX, Congress demanded that the Reagan administration liberalize its START position in the direction suggested by the Scowcroft Commission. The administration did so, increasing its proposed ceiling on land- and sea-based missiles from 850 to approximately 1,200. (This was more negotiable, since the higher figure would not require the Soviet Union to destroy as many of its workhorse land-based missiles as the lower figure would. The disparity arises from the Soviet allocation of three-fourths of its strategic warheads to land-based missiles, as against American allocation of only a fourth to land-based missiles). The hope of Western arms control advocates now is that in the long run the Soviet Union too will find it advantageous to move away from the present destabilizing MIRV regime toward a more stable single-warhead regime. Logically, the Soviet incentive to do so should be strong, since America's theoretical window of vulnerability in the early '80s will become the Soviet Union's theoretical window of vulnerability in the late '80s as America's highly accurate Trident submarine and presumably the MX constitute a ''first-strike'' threat to the Soviet Union. This is a very long-range hope, however. It is two American presidential elections - and probably one Soviet succession - away. It provides little incentive for immediate moves toward arms control; even the tangential area of ''confidence-building measures'' in which the two sides are fairly close is probably unattractive to the Kremlin at this point, since it could give an aura of East-West cooperation that Moscow wants to avoid in this period of NATO Euromissile deployment. Nor is there any overarching superpower desire for political cooperation in other areas at the moment that could lubricate arms control. On the contrary, confrontation is the order of the day, with the Reagan and Kremlin leaderships radiating hostility toward each other. In the meantime - before the two presidential elections, one further Kremlin succession, and potential arms control convergence have all transpired, we are entering a new technological era, without any perceived restraints.