FRESH starts are more easily called for than begun. This is readily seen with the United Nations, which, on its 40th anniversary, shows a disparity between its aspirations and achievements. And so it is with Mr. Reagan's call, in his address at the UN Assembly Thursday, for a ``fresh start'' in America's approach to world affairs generally, and in relations with the Soviet Union in particular. Those disappointed with Mr. Reagan's decision to forgo making a concrete arms control response, and offering instead a proposal to negotiate regional conflicts where the Soviets play a role, contend he was trying to lower expectations for an agreement. But the opposite could also be true. It could be that the administration takes seriously enough the proposals already tendered by Moscow that it intends to explore them in the more protected channels established in the Geneva talks. The administration is interested in proposals in all three arms areas, strategic, medium-range, and defensive weapons. ``We are studying the Soviet counterproposal carefully,'' Reagan said of Moscow's offer to cut offensive nuclear arsenals in half. ``I believe that within their proposal there are seeds which we should nurture, and in the coming weeks we will seek to establish a genuine process of give-and-take.''
Reagan's proposal to mediate regional conflicts served as much to underscore Soviet expansionism and point up the ideological contrast between the West's open society and the East's closed system as it did to establish a framework for conflict resolution. Reagan did not back off in his defense of democratic values, his confidence that individual liberty and open elections offered the world's peoples the most direct route to sharing the fruits of economic growth. These vintage Reagan values indeed drive his proposal on regional disputes. First, there would be direct negotiation among the warring parties; second, a parley between the US and the Soviet Union to seek ways to guarantee any agreements reached; and finally, a reintegration of the disputants ``back into the world economy so its citizens can share in the dynamic growth that other developing countries -- countries that are at peace -- enjoy.''
The President was telling the Soviets it was their regional expansionism -- in Angola, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nicaragua -- on which previous arms control initiatives foundered. He mentioned, but did not dwell on, what the administration sees as Soviet violations of previous agreements.
The Soviets may not appreciate reference to the Nov. 19-20 summit as a ``fresh start''; they tend to see the first meeting in six years between the heads of the two governments more as an occasion to do business than to get acquainted. And, fair enough, the summit has been in preparation for many months now; by itself, Washington and Moscow's decision to meet marked a significant turn in superpower relations.
The speech was a preview of Mr. Reagan's attitude in heading to Geneva: The Soviets can expect an American President committed to familiar Western ideals, not inclined to gloss over what he takes as wrong Soviet behavior, but not necessarily letting differences stand in the way of progress. But it gave no intimation of what shape that progress will take.