The United States and the Soviet Union are starting over. After more than a year's hiatus they resumed their arms control dialogue Jan. 7 with six-plus hours of talks at foreign ministers' level. Indications are that both sides view the resumption as the next step beyond the frequent shouting match of the past four years toward a mutual effort to control their ongoing adversarial relationship.
Secretary of State George Shultz and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko's resumption of direct high-level negotiation in Geneva clearly does not guarantee any eventual agreement. But it does signal a commitment to strive for superpower cooperation in the second Reagan administration and the later years of Soviet General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko's stewardship.
By contrast, the first Reagan administration and the Andropov and early Chernenko administrations were marked much more by public recriminations -- and by the Soviet walkout 13 months ago from the superpowers' strategic nuclear and Euromissile arms control talks. Both Washington and Moscow had to swallow harsh rhetoric about each other to come to the relatively civil meetings Jan. 7 and 8.
President Reagan has refrained from calling the Russians liars and an ``evil empire'' for more than a year. Soviet spokesmen have abandoned their frequent assertions in 1983 and early 1984 that the Kremlin had written off Mr. Reagan as anyone they could do business with.
Precisely how the new golden mean will be drawn between reflexive hostility and a 1970s-style d'etente that both sides now mistrust remains to be seen. The inner American team in the negotiating room -- Secretary of State Shultz, national security adviser Robert McFarlane, special adviser on arms control Paul Nitze, and US Ambassador to Moscow Arthur Hartmann -- suggests that the whole range of Soviet-American relations and not just arms control is now being addressed.
Mr. McFarlane's prominent role in the leadup to Geneva and in the proceedings here -- as well as the scheduling of a Reagan press conference on Wednesday immediately after conclusion of the two-day Geneva talks further suggests that the President's personal imprimatur is being conspicuously stamped on the whole cautious Soviet-American rapprochement.
These Geneva hints are only reinforced by Washington's dispatching to the Soviet Union this week of the highest-level trade negotiator the Reagan administration has ever sent to Moscow, Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade Lionel Olmer. Symbolically, this signal is even more dramatic than the Shultz-Gromyko meeting, given the Reagan administration's earlier insistence on using trade sanctions to punish the Soviet Union for actions in Afghanistan and Poland.
At the same time the presence on the larger American team in Geneva of both the administration's most articulate arms control pragmatist and its strongest arms control opponent -- Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, respectively -- suggests that the tough questions of arms control also loom large on the Geneva agenda.
In their two days here both sides hope to agree on the framework for beginning the most ambitious and difficult arms control talks the superpowers have ever conducted, covering both offensive and defensive nuclear (and probably also strategic nonnuclear) weapons, including prospective antimissile and antisatellite weapons in space.
It is not yet clear to what degree the two superpowers now view arms control as the pillar of their relationship -- or, contrariwise, to what degree they might now wish to insulate arms control from the many fluctuations of their political relationship. In the 1970s arms control was regarded as the pillar of d'etente -- and when political d'etente broke down over Soviet military intervention in Africa and Afghanistan, it brought arms control down with it -- especially in the eyes of the Reagan administration.
Paradoxically, Washington (like Moscow) has continued to observe the signed but unratified SALT II treaty that the Reagan administration has branded as ``fatally flawed.'' This treaty expires at the end of 1986, however, and decisions will have to be made soon about what weapons regime replaces it, as well as about the whole approach to arms control as the arms race veers into space and altogether new strategic defensive weapons in the next decade.