WE will likely be treated to alternating waves of optimism and doubt about the prospects for an arms control agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. So the public might as well brace itself against the roller coaster of day-to-day assessments and maintain, as the negotiators themselves must do, a reasonably steady expectation that success, while difficult, is possible. There have been several signs the process appears to be moving by its own weight. The joint announcement by the Kremlin and White House last Saturday of a time and place for the talks to begin -- March 12 in Geneva -- was made despite continuing reports that President Chernenko's health might take him out of the Soviet leadership picture. This suggests the Soviet decision to move forward on the talks was a joint leadership decision not likely to be derailed should the Soviets have to endure their third leadership succession in as many years.
On the American side, the selection of Max Kampelman to head the US delegation and oversee the discussions on defensive, space-based weapons, with former Sen. John Tower the point man on strategic weapons and Maynard Glitman on European mid-range missiles, gives the White House a team likely to be closely responsive to the President's direction. Mr. Tower, a Senate power on military matters, was critical of civilians having too much say in military decisions. His appointment could signal less influence for Defense Department civilians who have opposed seeking pacts with the Soviets.
President Reagan has been sounding more bullish on talks than many on his own team. This may have to do with his feeling more in charge of the talks process as his own direct interest in them has increased. Certainly the White House has been centralizing the President's power lately. This was evident on the domestic side in the switch to Donald Regan as chief of staff. In foreign policy, the President has a more focused team with the National Security Council under Robert McFarlane, George Shultz as secretary of state, and Paul Nitze as special arms talks adviser. Add to this his resounding reelection victory and the full four years of office ahead of him, and he should feel confident that he can work out an agreement if the basis for one can be found.
This kind of coordination and confidence at the top in Washington could prove crucial, as it was in 1971 when the SALT I decision to marry offensive and defensive weapons had to be made at the highest leadership level.
On the realism side, it is not easy to see how the Soviets' advantages in offensive weapons, especially in the offensive technologies which they've explored more than has the US, and the presumed US advantage in defensive weapons technologies can be bartered. There may well be a utopian cast to the US desire to get the USSR to yield its strategic system advantage to an emphasis on nonnuclear defensive forces in which the US may be ahead. The Soviets could reasonably be expected to undertake a space weapons program as well -- which would be an ominous sign of arms race expansion.
President Reagan has the power to hold down the defensive systems race to the research-and-development stage, short of heavy testing and deployment. Both sides are aware that, historically speaking, they are on a threshold that could quickly lead to a lot of testing of defensive weapons. The moment offers the kind of opportunity that existed at one point on the testing of multiple-warhead weapons, or MIRVs -- a missed opportunity lamented by some analysts who now, ironically, have become advocates of the defensive, or ``star wars,'' program.
In the European theater weapons working group, the appointment of Nitze prot'eg'e Glitman, an able technician, suggests the US wants to play down this set of talks. The Soviets have matched Mr. Glitman with a new negotiator. In this difficult area, success might yet be built on something like what was abandoned in 1983 -- seeking a halt or rollback in NATO deployments in exchange for substantial cuts in the Soviet SS-20 arsenal.
The public debate now seems likely to be waged over the new space weapons, where Soviets worry that the ``defensive'' weapons may indeed have offensive uses.
In any event, there is reason to think that the Geneva negotiating teams in March will be dealing from consensus in the Kremlin and from a more focused command in the White House -- both good reasons to maintain a realistic expectation that success is possible.