THE Geneva agreement to proceed with a new round of arms talks is significant. It is ambitious. Its ambitiousness could make results harder to come by. The very comprehensiveness of the framework worked out by Secretary of State George Shultz and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko -- a three-table process, one for long-range missiles and bombers, another for midrange missiles, and a third for space or defensive weapons -- could provide opportunities for those on either side wary of agreements to stretch out the negotiations. The phrase in the joint Geneva statement asserting that all three weapons sets will be ``considered and resolved in their interrelationship'' could invite complicated elaborations and stymie progress.
Still, the broadened framework recognizes that the offensive strategic and theater weapons, and defensive weapons systems, are interrelated. This alone is progress. And complicated or not, a comprehensive approach offers a better chance of eventual success.
Both sides have shown remarkable shifts in basic positions to get talks going. The Soviets, who walked out of the latest round of talks over the deployment of midrange missiles in NATO Europe, seem to be acting as though the Euromissiles aren't really there. The United States, which said its ``star wars'' defensive initiative could not be put on the table for discussion, has put it there.
The language of the Geneva statement implies the intention of including British and French nuclear weaponry at some point in the kitty. Whether this can be sold to the British and French remains to be seen.
At least the research and development on the star-wars weapons seems assured of going forward. The Soviet and American militaries are fascinated by the potential for such systems. American defense contractors too are excited about the systems. Testing and deployment may be another matter. And an agreement on ground-to-air defenses, or an antiballistic-missile agreement or antisatellite agreement, could evolve.
The significant point at this moment is that the two superpowers have given themselves an optimum framework and maximum time to negotiate. President Reagan has not even technically begun his second administration, and work on the new framework is under way. He has a full four years to devote to the project. At the least he has a good opportunity to limit the size of the world's nuclear arsenals, and even to push for radical reductions. On the Soviet side, a consensus seems to have emerged among current Kremlin leaders -- at some point during the 1984 American presidential campaign -- that Reagan would be reelected and that it would be better to give him a running start on negotiations.
Appreciating this moment of opportunity should not close one's eyes to the vast differences in the character, purposes, and approaches of the two superpowers. The Reagan administration has apparently dropped any sense of coupling Soviet conduct, for example its travesty in Afghanistan, to negotiations. Coupling conduct to talks is one matter. But it is not possible for an American leadership to keep silent before such moral outrages and not hold their perpetrators accountable.
The world also deeply longs for rational, constructive relations between the superpowers, however. A lot of serious thinking about how to achieve this is going forward. Much of this focuses on the arms control process. Robert M. Bowman in the column opposite, for example, discusses the potential futility of the star-wars approach. Others see a need to go beyond the Geneva framework: Jonathan Dean, opposite, argues that the extraordinary lack of firsthand familiarity between the American and Soviet leaderships requires regular, institutionalized get-togethers involving the top collective echelons -- hundreds of people, including the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and Democratic and Republican leaders in the US Congress.
Such analysis recognizes that improved relations will take great effort. But a significant and ambitious step toward such an end was taken this week in Geneva.