IN looking at the arms control talks between the United States and Soviet Union, it is useful to search for some essential point on which the two sides might converge and -- more particularly -- what is the nub of the problem in these talks as far as the American Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) is concerned. The question seems especially important, because the defensive arms talks at Geneva represent a genuine departure from negotiations held at Geneva during the first Reagan term. Though the talks come against the backdrop of a new Soviet leadership, a consensus on the basic Soviet position had already been achieved.
This round of Geneva talks must be seen as truly distinct. They involve two considerations fundamentally different from those present in previous arms talks -- certainly different considerations from those talks that involved the Reagan White House. Two new elements are, first, the psychological cut of the talks; and second, the issue of defense, as now starkly revolutionized by the notion of a space-linked defense system. The two strands -- psychological and defensive -- are curiously related.
Psychological commitment: For the first time since 1981, the top leadership on both sides is personally involved with the talks. The very highest levels of decisionmaking in Washington, led by President Reagan himself, will have intimate involvement with Geneva. And the Soviet delegation will be answerable in Moscow to Politburo leadership in the person of Andrei Gromyko. This juxtaposition -- Reagan and the Politburo -- was assured when Gromyko met with the President in September of last year.
If one approaches Geneva and SDI in the light of this highly personal engagement of top leadership in the talks, then the negotiations will reflect a psychological dimension that ironically binds the two leaderships together, the psychology of national security.
The defense factor: In both camps exists a strong commitment to defense of the homeland against the other side, a defense phrased in terms of highly patriotic values as well as technological overtones. This security orientation is nationalistic. It parallels the general world-view of top military leaders close to the Soviet leadership. At the same time, ``My country right or wrong, my country'' seems not far from the attitude held by President Reagan, as well as his counterparts in the Politburo, a world-view that helped the American leader win an enormously popular electoral victory in 1984 as well as in 1980. Hence the central issues at Geneva are unlikely to be satisfied by technical considerations. Instead the negotiators will have to grapple with the more fundamental question of how technology either defends or threatens cherished national values.
Both sides will assume that the other represents antithetical values and that somehow the values question must be included, at least as leitmotif, in the negotiations, even though the issues on the negotiating table itself will be more technical.
A combination on the American team of Max Kampelman, a specialist in articulating national values, as head of the Geneva delegation and Paul Nitze, an expert in the intricate technicalities of arms control matters, as chief adviser in Washington gives some picture of what has been evolving within the Reagan administration ever since the President made his personal commitment to these talks last September.
If values and technicalities are intermixed in Geneva, this is quite unlike past arms control negotiations. On the American side, at least, and certainly when presidents were involved, there was always a sharp distinction between ideological and technical matters. Such a separation is not in the Reagan style.
This brings us to the significance of the Reagan SDI program for the Geneva talks. The SDI concept has invited justifications ranging from utopian vision to military necessity. But they all seem oriented toward a Reagan notion that the American people need a defense that will spare them the horrors of nuclear war, freeing them from living under a deterrence system -- threat of ``mutual assured destruction'' (MAD) -- where they are held hostage to this horror.
Central to Geneva, then, is the question: How can each side best protect its citizenry?
The Soviets will want Reagan to defend his personal view of the best defense of the American heartland against Soviet attack. The President will want the Soviets to put forward the best case for the continued development of offense as their best defense.
Some analysts are now predicting that nothing will come of Geneva, because Soviet and US leaders are heading down sharply diverging roads in what they want to bring to the table. Others would like to see more convergence: on the Reagan administration side, that the Soviets will learn to accept the SDI concept; on the more traditional arms control side, that Reagan will bargain away parts of SDI for the sake of maintaining MAD. Others think either divergence or convergence will lead to a new, spectacular surge in the arms race.
There is another possibility: Geneva could produce some early, positive affirmation that nuclear weapons in any form are increasingly senseless for national security.
Here, further offensive and defensive weapons development would seem as pointless endgames, if carried forward with no limitations and with no objectives of eventual curtailment. Given President Reagan's personal involvement in the new Geneva talks and the Soviet consensus that for the time being business should be done with the President, it may be that, in a very personal way, both leaderships will declare the nuclear age ``finished'' during the next four years. This expectation about Geneva is no more utopian than the view that some convergence between the two sides on basic nuclear doctrine is possible or that, without convergence, strategic stability would still be sustainable.
Robert J. Pranger is director of International Programs, American Enterprise Institute, Washington.