THE principal concern of NATO defense ministers meeting at this lovely resort last week was to disabuse Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of any notion that he could use the failure of the Reykjavik summit to reach a comprehensive arms control deal as a wedge with which to split the Western alliance. This was accomplished in a final communiqu'e containing a blanket endorsement of President Reagan's summit positions, calling on the Soviet Union to conclude a treaty limiting medium-range missiles in Europe that is not held hostage to a broader accord, and referring to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as the appropriate vehicle to limit work on America's Strategic Defense Initiative.
But in individual briefings and interviews here, several of NATO's leading figures expressed the view that Reykjavik may not have been quite the ``near-miss'' advertised by the two big powers and, given what was actually on the table, it is just as well that the parties adjourned without agreement. NATO's secretary-general, Lord Carrington, for example, told this observer that there were so many gaps in the final proposals presented by each side that reducing any understanding to an actual treaty would have taken ``a very long time.''
With the perspective of a few weeks, the marathon Reagan-Gorbachev effort does indeed appear less a sober bargaining effort between the world's two senior statesmen than a mutually intoxicating high-stakes bidding war in which both players lost track of their own hands as well as the opposition point count.
Issues that had bedeviled arms control negotiators for more than a decade were set to one side rather than resolved. Critical questions such as verification were substantially ignored. Genuine compromise, bluff, and bluster were interwoven into a pattern that lacked all coherence of design and constancy of purpose. Examples:
The two provisionally agreed to cut nuclear launchers and warheads some 50 percent during an initial five-year period, to about 1,600 and 6,000, respectively. But cuts by themselves do not equal crisis stability, particularly where warheads remain greatly in excess of those needed to strike the other party's launch platforms.
Despite early administration suggestions to the contrary, it appears the proposed ban 10 years hence on all missiles was an American proposal that drew no Soviet support. Most serious arms controllers, including those among the NATO ministers, would be delighted if this proposal remained in Iceland's diplomatic permafrost.
For one thing, a strategic triad is inherently more stable than any twin-legged counterpart, particularly assuming the future development of air defense and anti-submarine-warfare capabilities. For another, unless the nuclear arsenals of Britain, France, and China were also limited, these nations would achieve instant superpower status, given their own reliance on ballistic missiles. Finally, it is the American ballistic missile that has long constituted the backbone of the ``extended deterrence'' the US provides for its West European allies. If, as US officials now concede, the President accepted a Soviet proposal for the total elimination of nuclear weapons within ten years, he was entering even wilder uncharted waters.
The question of sea-launched cruise missiles, was also skirted. The President's position has been that such weapons should be outside the scope of any treaty. At Reykjavik there was some shift in his position but apparently no coming to grips with the verification issue.
Nor was the performance any better on the central issue that deadlocked the meeting, SDI. The US side proposed a simple 10-year extension of the ABM Treaty, a position not inherently unreasonable until one recalls that administration revisionists now define that treaty as permitting the development and testing of ``novel systems'' like SDI. So the ``compromise'' would have banned only SDI deployment that could not occur within the 10-year period in any event.
There was also some European disquietude at Gleneagles over intermediate nuclear forces. What seemed to many a good deal two or three years ago -- the removal of Soviet SS-20s in exchange for the non-deployment or removal of American Pershing 2 and ground-launched cruise missiles -- seems somewhat less desirable to Europeans today, given Soviet conventional strength plus their recent deployment of shorter-range missiles in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, deployments that bring much of Western Europe into range.
But here the European case is weak, given the magnitude of Soviet versus US reductions discussed and the many often overlooked conventional advantages of the West, including robust economies, a large highly skilled manpower pool, and close relationships among the countries involved. Nuclear weapons may indeed be ``defense on the cheap,'' as the Europeans like to say, but the political and psychic costs of excessive reliance upon such weapons must also be factored in.
There seem at this point to be two lessons easily drawn from Reykjavik. First, the standard wisdom that such summitry should be preceded by adequate staffing, careful preparation, and substantial narrowing of the issues remains sound. Free-lance diplomacy is chancy business at any time, particularly in the nuclear age.
Second, a long record of cautious, piecemeal agreements so disdained by this administration was not the frivolous work of weak-kneed giveaway artists, but product of such hardheaded considerations as what is negotiable and what is stabilizing.
If he ever hopes to achieve nuclear arms control, President Reagan must yet recognize that the past is indeed prelude. Having tried for nearly six years to reinvent the wheel, the administration has yet to produce something that is round.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News Pentagon correspondent.