AFTER a week and a half of nuclear soap opera, is it possible to estimate where the superpower competition is going to take the world? Will Summits 2 and 3 occur after 1? Will the plodding Geneva arms talks translate the wild Iceland bidding game into any solid treaties?
If one such deal is a sharp cut, or even elimination, of medium-range missiles in Europe, can NATO members bring themselves to strengthen conventional forces? Would China press for a separate deal with Moscow, if mobile nuclear missiles were left in Siberia but not Europe? Will Moscow be able to woo the United States, Western Europe, and Japan into credit-card, high-tech trade deals in the wake of arms control bargaining?
None of these questions can be answered with any certainty. But each has taken on a new life, and altered probability, as a result of the Reykjavik non-summit summit.
Zakharov-Daniloff-type events may intervene to affect the timing, but it seems more likely than not that the two sides will find a way to strike a bargain on medium-range nuclear missile cuts in coming months. That would allow a second summit to ratify the deal, perhaps even in the first half of 1987.
Such a second summit (Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington, plus California and Iowa?) does not necessarily ensure the promised third summit. But it would raise pressure for a third, to even up the hospitality by seeing Ronald Reagan in Moscow before his term ends.
Hospitality is a weak reed on which to argue for another parley. But the Soviet sense of propriety and equality among superpowers is strong. Mr. Reagan wants to get his message across to the Soviet people. And Mr. Gorbachev is likely to see such visits as helping with what may be an even bigger Politburo priority than arms control: increased East-West trade in high-tech and consumer goods, based on credit buying.
Admittedly, the foregoing is a heavy schedule for the last two years of the Reagan presidency. It can be argued that if Reagan was unable to bring about a summit after the first three years of his arms buildup, even after his early 1983 announcement of SDI, it's expecting a lot to believe he and Gorbachev can cram two more full-scale visits into two years.
Furthermore, in both capitals strong forces are arrayed against any substantial arms reduction deal. Despite the fact that the Great Communicators of East and West have been able to paint their bidding battle in Iceland as a success, hawks on both sides will be arguing against risking another such fast-careening session, on grounds that it's as chancy as scratching your ear at a Christie's Rembrandt auction.
But remember, both sides now have shown the world a lot of cards in their hands, as well as some epic poker-faced bluffs. Let's try to sort out the bluffs from the bids and see where they might lead.
The three headline-grabbing grand ploys appear to have been just that. Each was known to be unacceptable to the other side. Reagan's proposal to eliminate all ballistic missiles in a decade would eliminate Moscow's intercontinental warhead advantage and leave Washington with an air-launched advantage in cruise missiles and nuclear bombers.
Gorbachev's proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons would leave the West, specifically Europe, at a disadvantage before the USSR's superior conventional forces. And, finally, Gorbachev's demand that SDI experiments be confined to the laboratory in a world shorn of nuclear counterbalances ran directly to Reagan's veto.
But the combination of bluffs and bargaining hands may have helped change the way the big powers move. More serious bargaining at Geneva over a sharp reduction in mid-range missiles may accelerate the pace of NATO discussions of strengthening conventional defenses. That includes talk of substituting nonnuclear, tank-killing weapons for nuclear battlefield weapons.
Both sides are likely to develop the ground and air (as distinct from space) use of SDI technology in the next decade, in pursuit of creating nonnuclear defenses against surprise attack. The use of sensors, lasers, particle beams, computer coordination of defenses, and other components of SDI at lower power levels is already part of Western and Soviet defense development.
Advances in agreed on-site inspection methods may be more possible than at any time in two decades. Some reduction in the amount of intercontinental missile overkill in the hands of Moscow and Washington may be possible. But such advances would likely fall short of the giant cuts promised by both sides in Iceland.
Talk of allowing Moscow about two-thirds of the mobile missiles it now has in Siberia might precipitate the next step in the sparring between Gorbachev and China's Deng Xiaoping.
The former has offered troop reductions in Mongolia and Afghanistan but no cooperation in Vietnam and Cambodia. The latter has offered to talk to Gorbachev if there is hope of a backdown on Cambodia.
Beyond all these feints and openings on defense lies the still uncertain territory of increased East-West trade in technology, bank credits for Moscow, and proposed Soviet-Western joint enterprises. In the decade over which the arms dealings are likely to be bargained a lot can happen.
A tightening of world oil supplies, and consequent price increase, could help Moscow's buying power. Eastern Europe's needs may demand more East-West trade. The passing of West Europe's baby boom, a decade behind America's, may improve that region's economies and undercut protest, but shrink its draft-age pool for strengthening conventional defense. Japan and its competing Pacific Rim neighbors could begin to see trade possibilities involving the Soviet Union and its far east.
The Iceland drama may have ended with soap-opera recrimination. But it suggests a lot of episodes to come.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.