THE negative reaction of many in the United States and Europe to President Reagan's decision on SALT II arises, in large measure, because the administration has a serious credibility gap in the matter of arms control. The arguments advanced for the decision might be more broadly accepted if the Reagan administration were believed to be seriously interested in exploring weapons limitations with the Soviet Union. Many observers would agree that we need to preserve an effective US deterrent and that we need to be alert to Soviet violations of SALT II and prior agreements. Few would deny that the Soviets are tough negotiators and are undoubtedly using arms control initiatives to erode US support in Europe.
For many in this country and Europe, there is an added concern: the risks involved in an unrestricted arms race. Despite rhetoric acknowledging the desire to reduce nuclear weapons, the administration has not demonstrated that it genuinely shares this concern.
Perhaps, as government spokesmen say, the USSR has not responded to reasonable proposals placed ``on the table'' at Geneva by the US or been willing to discuss violations or to introduce their public proposals into the formal negotiations.
All this may be true, but other signs from official Washington speak more loudly about the administration's objectives. Members of the Committee on the Present Danger, dedicated to killing SALT II, are in prominent positions in the arms control structure. They make no secret of their lack of interest in concluding any arms agreement with the Soviets.
And then, there is the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Not only does most of the scientific community doubt the feasibility of SDI, but it now appears that, rather than reducing the nuclear arsenal, a true ballistic missile defense may require more nuclear weapons. The administration has stated without reservation that neither existing agreements nor the prospect of new ones will stand in the way of the development of SDI.
The lack of interest in arms control is further reinforced by the feeling expressed by some in the administration that the US can win an arms race. US policy, in their view, should not be dedicated to reaching agreements with the Soviets, but to weakening, if not destroying, the Soviet system through the pressure of new and expensive weapons systems and strong support for anticommunist guerrillas.
Those who pursue the harder-line approach on these issues are in a favorable position today. The Soviets have done little to enhance their image or their position in Europe. Chernobyl and anamolous Soviet links to terrorism have not helped. Conservative administrations generally favorable to the US are in power in most Western European countries. The peace movement is dormant. Russian efforts to split the Americans from the allies are not succeeding.
None of this should make us complacent about the longer term acceptance in Europe of current US policies toward the Soviet Union, particularly on arms control. Conservative governments are in some degree of trouble in both the United Kingdom and Germany, in part because of support for US policies. The Europeans are clearly worried about the impact on their populations of the latest US announcement on SALT. Soviet efforts to exploit these concerns will continue.
Some in the present administration seem to feel that what the Europeans feel is irrelevant.
The policies toward the Soviets being advocated and, in some cases, enunciated by the administration represent a high risk approach. They seem to be based on the premise that the Soviet interest in a reduction of pressures on their system is such that they will ultimately make major concessions in arms control and in their support for regional conflict. The corollary premise is that, even if the Russians do not, it is to the administration's domestic political advantage to stand firm on the current US policies.
Few would dispute the desirability for world peace and the lessening of tensions of bringing about changes in Soviet attitudes and behavior. Many, however, on both sides of the Atlantic remain deeply troubled by policies that seem to be based on questionable assumptions regarding Russian reactions. If the policies fail, the results will not be a Soviet collapse, but serious long term political, budgetary, and security problems for the United States and for its allies.
The credibility gap exists because, to a great many people, the Reagan administration does not seem to be serious about arms control.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.