President Reagan has frequently expressed his eagerness for a United States-Soviet meeting that could lead to a summit conference. The problem is how to convince the Soviets that the President's overtures are something more than election year politics.
One way to encourage a positive response from Moscow is to prepare actively and publicly for a summit meeting, to take place after the election. The most dramatic way to demonstrate the American commitment to meeting the Soviets at the highest level for serious conversations would be to appoint a bipartisan panel of ''wise men.'' They would examine the outstanding issues between the two countries and draw up a list of policy options on subjects ranging from arms control to economic cooperation to human rights.
The assignment given this committee would also include working with a counterpart committee appointed by the Kremlin - if the Russians were willing to appoint one - to prepare a realistic agenda for a joint encounter that would avoid the ''great expectations and great disappointments'' Mr. Reagan has cautioned against.
The makeup of the committee is of course crucial. Its members must have prestige abroad and at home. I suggest Mr. Reagan appoint a panel of four: former President Nixon, who has enhanced his reputation as a statesman with both our allies and the communist world since leaving office; former Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, a former American ambassador to the UN; President Carter's secretary of state, Cyrus Vance; and Robert Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, an able and skilled negotiator, who served as our country's trade representative and as a presidential envoy to the Middle East.
The President should act without delay in appointing such a group to prepare for negotiations with the Russians, because, although a summit meeting is unlikely before the election, the state of tension between Washington and Moscow demands that both sides start thinking seriously about dealing with the issues that divide them.
If President Reagan is returned to office, he can move immediately upon his reelection to set the time and place for meeting with President Chernenko. If Mr. Mondale is elected, he can make a summit conference one of his first actions upon moving into the White House. That is why I propose that the report be completed and submitted on the day after the presidential election.
Whoever is elected would have much to gain from the bipartisan nature of this approach. The White House would demonstrate its recognition that a great national effort - transcending party lines - is required to deal with the Russians. Mr. Mondale, by endorsing the formation of a committee containing representatives of both parties, would show he is ready to put country above party, just as Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg did when he helped President Truman win public support for the United Nations in 1945.
The long-discussed meeting of the American and Soviet Presidents has been inhibited by a wide variety of issues separating the two countries, but it is not only the Washington-Moscow freeze that has inhibited the climb to the summit. There has in fact been no one in Moscow to talk to. In the past 18 months the Kremlin has been headed successively by three men: Leonid Brezhnev, followed by Yuri Andropov, followed by Konstantin Chernenko.
Are the Russians ready to talk now? On June 21, the Kremlin's chief spokesman , Leonid Zamyatin, said the Russians considered summit meetings ''very important ,'' adding: ''Every summit has to be prepared very thoroughly for the talks to be fruitful.''
A panel of prominent Soviet officials, parallel to the American group suggested here, could provide the thorough preparation that Mr. Chernenko clearly demands before he sits down with a US president. And a pre-summit meeting of the two panels would give the Russians a chance to test the waters and determine whether flexibility on their part might lead to concessions on ours.
Meeting with representatives of our NATO allies in the White House last month , President Reagan said: ''There is no more important consideration than the development of a better working relationship with the Soviet Union.'' There is no better time to begin than now.