Can the current deadlock in the United States-Soviet relationship be overcome as long as there is no strong leadership in Moscow? The Reagan Administration's spokesmen argue that the lack of diplomatic achievement with the Soviet Union is connected with the power vacuum in the Kremlin. Konstantin Chernenko is the third Communist Party general secretary since Reagan came to office, and his health also seems to be deteriorating. There is simply no formidable personality in the Politburo to conduct business with, or so say many US officials.
This is a convenient excuse. It lets the President off the hook. Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that transitional periods are not conducive to making the kinds of tough decisions necessary to resolve complex issues dividing the superpowers. But the White House - not unnaturally, during the election campaign - is trying to have it both ways. It also claims credit for the Soviets' relatively cautious behavior in the international arena. But is it logical to deduct that if the Kremlin is not organized to negotiate it may be organized to act assertively on the global scale?
The fact that the Chernenko leadership appears incapable of drastic strategic departures both in terms of adventurism and of negotiating approaches does not mean that the bear is hibernating. There is a functioning government in Moscow. It was this government, in alliance with Syria, which inflicted a defeat on Reagan in Lebanon. It is this government that increased the level of Soviet military operations in Afghanistan. And it was this government that - as a growing body of evidence suggests - accelerated the pace of its military programs in response to the administration's defense efforts.
Conversely, the degree of Soviet tactical flexibility should not be underestimated. The USSR agreed to renegotiate the SALT II treaty. It was willing to reduce considerably the numbers of SS-20 missiles targeted on Western Europe. After withdrawing from negotiations in Geneva the Soviets began to pressure the United States into accepting talks on banning weapons in space. One does not have to accept Soviet proposals - and many of them were indeed unacceptable - to see that they hardly project the image of a paralyzed leadership.
Senior officials object to questions regarding the seriousness of Mr. Reagan's commitment to arms control. According to them the President has chaired at least 16 meetings of the National Security Council specifically dealing with reducing nuclear arms. Ironically, the same officials reject the criticism that the administration has failed to sign a single arms control accord with the Russians. In their view it is substantive limits on weapons systems, not numbers of agreements, that matter. But if this is the case, is the number of NSC sessions - especially in light of White House aide Michael Deaver's recent revelation that the President, on occasion, dozes through them - a better criterion of Mr. Reagan's arms control accomplishments?
The administration argues that if and when the President is reelected the Soviets will finally see - as Secretary of State George Shultz put it - ''that they can't get their way by virtue of lack of willpower in the United States and the Western world,'' and ''that it is best to negotiate.'' But we have been told too many times in the past that once this or that American system is funded or deployed the Politburo will finally make concessions at the bargaining table. Instead, the Kremlin has opted to withdraw from negotiations and to proceed with an additional military buildup.
True, the administration has reason to be proud of reversing trends in military competition previously favoring the Soviet Union. Also, despite some initial errors, the administration has done fairly well in maintaining the strength and cohesion of NATO. The deployment of American missiles in Western Europe was remarkably painless.
As a result Reagan has more leverage in dealing with the Russians than any President since John Kennedy. And leverage legitimately entitles the administration to expect more flexibility from Moscow. It is, after all, the balance of military programs rather than the balance of diplomatic arguments that traditionally has had the paramount impact on US-Soviet arms control.
The President and his advisers would do well to engage in some soul-searching as to exactly what in the US policy precluded this leverage from leading to an arms deal. Unfortunately, influential voices in the administration are clearly opposed to such an examination.
In her address to the Republican National Convention, Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick charged that those who criticize the President's arms control posture ''always blame America first.'' Yet there is more to America than the Reagan administration. Mrs. Kirkpatrick and her kind also miss the point. The issue is not whether the Soviet conduct is reprehensible but rather how well the Reagan team reacts to it.
Surely Ambassador Kirkpatrick would not agree that everyone who attacked Jimmy Carter's way of handling the hostage crisis in Iran identified with the Ayatollah regime. And surely she would not accept that criticism of US pressure on Israel - typical of her neoconservative friends - amounts to antipatriotic behavior.
The Kremlin is responsible for a growing disregard of its arms control obligations, for squeezing the East Europeans interested in a modicum of accommodation with the West, for killing Jewish emigration and mistreating Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents. No US actions - however misguided - can serve as a justification for this sad record. But how can the administration explain that three previous Presidents who pursued limited cooperation with the Soviet Union succeeded where this President has failed in increasing the Kremlin's stake in normal relationships with Washington?
A normal relationship with the Soviet empire intrinsically cannot be frictionless. But it is a relationship which combines force with inducements and requires the US to use power with tact and care. Encouraging the worst instincts of the Soviet ruling class helps to discredit the adversary, but does this serve American interests? In foreign policy, self-righteous is no substitute for effectiveness.