It might best be called ''jockeying toward Geneva.'' And prior to negotiations in that Swiss city early next year, both superpowers seem to be vying for the inside track.
US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko plan to meet for two days of talks in Geneva starting Jan. 7. But, in advance of the meeting, their respective governments are at pains to portray themselves as reasonable, conciliatory, and peaceable.
Here in the Soviet Union, the ruling Communist Party leadership seems to be following a particularly complicated approach. It is:
* Slowly staking out its own position in advance of the talks.
* Pressing the United States to be willing to make concessions at Geneva in order to keep the negotiating process going.
* Trying to explain to Soviet citizens why it agreed to renew arms control negotiations with the US after repeatedly refusing to do so.
* Reassuring the rank and file, as well as hard-liners within the party, that it will do nothing to compromise Soviet security.
* Suggesting that if the Geneva talks fail, it will be the fault of the US, not the Soviet Union.
In various statements and during meetings with visitors, Soviet officials have indicated that they are not pressing for the removal of new American-supplied cruise and Pershing II missiles from Western Europe as a condition for the new set of Geneva negotiations.
But they have indicated they will certainly raise the issue once the negotiations get started.
The US administration has signaled willingness to freeze or reduce the numbers of those missiles, or remove them completely - if the Soviets enter into a verifiable treaty to reduce the number of its missiles aimed at Western Europe.
So far, the Soviets have shown no willingness to do this, diplomats say.
The Soviets have also indicated they will press for the inclusion of French and British nuclear missiles in future arms control discussions - something the US has refused to do, on grounds it cannot negotiate on behalf of other countries.
With these issues still threatening a deadlock, the Soviets have pressed for some other move on the part of the US to show its good faith and to keep up the momentum of negotiations.
Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko has repeatedly listed several steps the US could take to prove its sincerity. All have previously been rejected by the US.
Still, the effort to press these points has involved some unlikely interlocutors. Most recently, the American industrialist Armand Hammer met with Mr. Chernenko and posed the question of whether Chernenko would hold a summit with President Reagan if Mr. Reagan, in turn, would agree to a treaty pledging not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Chernen-ko said he would.
The Soviet Union had given such a pledge previously. But the United States says that NATO, of which it is a member, must retain the ability to use nuclear weapons in order to deter a potential massive conventional attack on Western Europe by Soviet and East-bloc troops.
Mr. Hammer acknowledged that he had been given no negotiating brief by the US government and said he had no idea whether the US would agree to such a ''no-first-use'' pledge.
For his part, Chernenko used the meeting to declare that it is time to ''roll up one's sleeves and get down to business by preparing concrete agreements.''
''Unfortunately,'' he added, ''there are still people in America who do not want to give up their attempts at reaching military superiority over the USSR. It seems to us that it is high time to realize that we shall never allow it to happen.''
Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, underscored the same point earlier this week. It said the Soviet Union would ''reply adequately to any military threat to its security,'' including the so-called ''star wars'' strategic defense plan.
The commentary seemed to be aimed at a number of audiences, including US critics of the ''star wars'' plan (which is favored by President Reagan) and Soviet hard-liners who insist that this country not appear to be wavering in the face of an apparent American technological lead in space-based weapons systems.
Accordingly, Soviet officials have made it clear that the ''militarization of space'' issue will be high on their agenda at Geneva. Presumably that agenda is the main topic of discussion at the meeting of East-bloc foreign and defense ministers now under way in East Berlin and Budapest.
Mr. Gromyko is attending the Berlin talks, but Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, who is rumored to be ailing, was represented by Deputy Defense Minister Sergei Akhromeyev, the armed forces chief of staff.