THE cat-and-mouse game over the 1986 summit appears to be drawing to a close. Before the year is out, probably sometime in December, it looks as though Mikhail Gorbachev will fly to the United States for the meeting with Ronald Reagan that the two leaders agreed upon when they met last year in Geneva. A lot of propaganda jousting has gone on in the intervening months, but now both Soviets and Americans seem to be ready to get down to business.
The Soviets have come forth with some new arms control proposals that President Reagan says bear signs of promise. Though there is backing and filling among administration officials of varying viewpoints, the White House seems to be in a mood to indicate that the proposals, although not ideal, should be treated seriously.
The Soviets, of course, do not have the luxury of open debate on their arms control policy which exists in the United States.
There are certainly differing viewpoints in the Moscow bureaucracy, but the lobbying goes on carefully and privately. There is no public debate and no critical lobby outside the government that can get its argument aired on the front page of Pravda.
By contrast, President Reagan is afforded the public benefit of everybody's thinking, both inside and outside the administration, spread across the nation's newspapers and airwaves.
The view that ought to prevail with the President, and I think will, is that he now has a window to explore how serious Mr. Gorbachev is about reducing some of the Moscow-Washington tensions.
That means serious negotiation on arms control, the main topic of Soviet emphasis. The negotiations, however, should also include Soviet warmaking, subversion, and mischiefmaking in a string of countries from Afghanistan to Cambodia to Angola to Nicaragua. It is no good cutting a nuclear-arms deal with the Soviets while giving them a green light to pursue revolutionary warfare around the world.
The window of opportunity exists for several reasons.
On the Soviet side, Mr. Gorbachev is confronted by grave economic problems. Logic dictates that he should concentrate on increasing productivity and not get into a new and costly arms race. At the same time, he has implanted his own nominees in high ranks of both the party and the military and may feel he is gaining increasing control over both.
Finally, it is evident that he is relying heavily for his assessment of the United States on his former ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin.
Mr. Dobrynin is a pretty sophisticated observer of American ways and moods. If he has correctly analyzed Ronald Reagan, he may be reporting to Mr. Gorbachev that now may be as good a time as any to get an arms control agreement.
Mr. Reagan, after all, is comfortable that he has rebuilt American defenses. He has long taken a hard line with the Soviets. Dealing from strength, he may be the best American President to sell an arms control settlement to the American people.
This President would also like to leave office having achieved a better relationship with Moscow: not a lovefest but a better relationship.
That means that if there is to be an agreement on arms reduction, it will be one the Americans can monitor and verify against Soviet cheating.
The President can hardly have missed the warning in Zbigniew Brzezinski's new book, ``Game Plan.'' Mr. Brzezinski, who was President Carter's national-security adviser, says that while for many well-meaning Americans, arms control is the shortcut to peace and security, for Soviet leaders it is a ``tool for seeking strategic preponderance.''
The contamination of strategy by pacifism is the key danger for the United States inherent in crusading arms control, Brzezinski says.
It is useful counsel for Mr. Reagan as he climbs the foothills to the summit.