The governments of the Western world were beginning this week to come to serious grips with a situation that is novel for them and difficult to handle. The Soviets are apparently serious about reaching for an arms control agreement. For years, indeed over much of the post-World War II era, arms control has largely been a forum for propaganda maneuvering. One side would make proposals for propaganda advantage, assuming that the other side could be trusted to block real business.
The present maneuvering around possible elimination of middle- and shorter-range nuclear missiles from the European theater is a case in point. President Reagan put forward the ``zero option'' idea five years ago when no one in the West dreamed the Soviets might pick up any such idea.
But along comes a new type of leader in Moscow named Mikhail Gorbachev, who has unfrozen a lot of old Soviet positions and who gives every appearance of being serious about taking all or some nuclear weapons out of Europe.
Which means that beginning about two weeks ago every NATO government found itself in an anguishing reappraisal of positions on nuclear weapons.
One measure of just how anguishing is that in Washington, Richard Perle, who until now has blocked every move toward arm control with the Soviets from his office at the Pentagon, is supporting and arguing for a zero option for Europe (with suitable safeguards). Meanwhile, former President Nixon and his former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had negotiated the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and laid the ground work for SALT II, were out in the open against the zero option for Europe that their Republican successor, Ronald Reagan, himself put on the bargaining table.
Division of opinion is at least as vigorous in Bonn. Chancellor Helmut Kohl publicly supports the removal of medium-range missiles from Europe, but says the ``second zero option'' - that of removing the shorter-range missiles - would remove West Germany from the protective shield that US nuclear firepower provides in the face of Soviet conventional superiority.
But West German public opinion is overwhelming on the side of anything that sounds like getting their country out from under nuclear danger and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher is in favor of going ahead.
The division of opinion over the merits of the ``zero option'' for Europe is less sharp and less publicly displayed in France, Britain, Italy, and the other allied countries, but it exists in all three. The generalization holds true in all those countries that the foreign ministries tend to favor the movement because it implies constructive business with the Soviets, hence it can be expected to lead to reduction in East-West tension.
But the defense ministries tend to be opposed because the defense of Western Europe is heavily built on nuclear weapons, particularly on the intermediate-range Pershing 2s and cruise missiles that can reach into the same Soviet territory from which any invasion of Western Europe would have to come.
Insofar as the treasuries are consulted, they tend to side with the defense ministries, because the cost of defending Europe with nuclear missiles is less than the cost of beefing up conventional forces in compensation.
But the diplomats from the various NATO countries are largely in agreement that the march toward removal of at least the intermediate-range missiles from Europe is under way and probably cannot be stopped. By this past week, it had come to be largely assumed that the point of no return has been passed.
There will be tough negotiating over the conditions for removals. The Germans, for example, are hinting they would like some of the shorter-range missiles kept in Europe because of the deterrent effect on the Soviets of weapons in Europe that can reach to Moscow. But no German government could risk the political reprisal waiting at the next election day were it to be responsible for preventing the reduction in the number of Soviet weapons that can hit targets in West Germany.
The diplomats are not ready yet to talk about specific dates for the signing of a new arms control treaty, but it is generally presumed that it will happen in Washington sometime in the fall of this year, with Mr. Gorbachev getting his first-ever glimpse of the US.
And of course a summit this year to sign a treaty on intermediate-range weapons in Europe could open the way for a second summit in Moscow before Ronald Reagan puts all this behind him and heads for his California ranch.
But other events in Washington over the past week cloud the prospect for Mr. Reagan's diplomacy. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord, the first witness before a joint Senate and House committee investigating arms sales to Iran and the funding of Nicaraguan contra rebels, pinned directly on his White House superiors the responsibility for legally questionable actions.
General Secord told specifically of receiving funds and orders from White House aide Lt. Col. Oliver North and of receiving advice and help from William Casey, the late director of central intelligence. General Secord says he used the funds, as directed from the White House, to support the supply of the contra forces operating against the government of Nicaragua. The operation was contrary to the intent of Congress expressed in specific legislation.
Was what General Secord did actually illegal? If it was illegal and done on orders transmitted by Colonel North, does this implicate Colonel North's superior? If so, then responsibility is only one step away from the Oval Office.
The certainty has to be faced that before the committee hearings are over the taint of possible illegality will reach to the office of the President's assistant for national security affairs.
The possibility has to be faced that the taint can then go from that level into the Oval Office itself.
This still seems unlikely. Yet the possibility can not be ruled out that the shock waves from the Iran-contra investigation could so harm Mr. Reagan politically that they could spoil the scenario that, otherwise, would give the President his chance to visit Moscow while he is still in office.