With President Reagan's proposals for canceling NATO's intermediate-range missile deployment, in return for deep cuts in Soviet missiles, the United States may now capture the high ground in the debate over theater nuclear forces. But none of the preliminary skirmishes and rhetorical exchanges alters the realities facing our negotiators in Geneva. Despite the president's initiative, the United States stands to lose a great deal more than it has to gain. It will require high statecraft to turn this around and open up the prospect of a positive outcome.

The nature of our negotiating position and the unusual manner of its presentation indicate that these negotiations may be more public than private. The critical numbers for both East and West appear to relate as much to public opinion polls as to nuclear weapon deployments.

But we cannot push our allies to assume a defense posture that they themselves do not wish to assume. This is not the stuff on which strong alliances in the West are made. In the same vein, we should not use the negotiations as a lever to ensure implementation of the NATO decision to deploy ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing IIs. Such tactics become counterproductive and, ultimately, weaken collective security.

Instead of actively promoting a theater nuclear war-fighting posture for the alliance, the United States should be willing to say to our friends across the Atlantic the following: neither the threat nor the proper Western response is static. NATO has at its disposal a variety of ways to respond to the Soviet buildup. Collectively, we can do more to bolster conventional defenses that would make resort to nuclear weapons less likely. Sea- launched cruise missiles can be placed aboard submarines, cruisers and destroyers. We can dedicate additional Poseidon submarines to the European theater, develop low-cost diesel submarines for an explicit TNF role or deploy more dual-capable tactical aircraft.

The United States should make clear that our proposals are negotiable. The only non- negotiable elements are Western requirements for stability, a reduction of tensions, and equity. Ironically, Soviet promotion of the concept and goal of parity in theater nuclear forces provides the West with strong leverage on this score.

In other words, the United States should not be wedded to an inflexible negotiating posture as a means to ensure Pershing II and GLCM deployments can proceed. Nor should the United States be wedded to a theology of war-fighting that asserts that ground-based theater nuclear forces are the only appropriate means to counter the Soviet buildup. In the long run, these positions will create more problems for our allies than they solve.

This does not mean that the United States should precipitously switch signals on our European partners. The two-track approach of defense modernization and arms control adopted by NATO is entirely correct. The central point is that NATO's response on both fronts must be collective decisions that should be continuously subject to review.

The West does have positions of strength in the upcoming negotiations on theater nuclear forces, although they have been mostly obscured by troubling events in NATO capitals and by the buildup of Soviet forces. Our strength rests not in public diplomacy, but on a negotiating position of equality in theater nuclear forces and on the wide variety of options available to provide for such equality.

President Reagan has started on the right foot. One hopes the Reagan team has learned from past mistakes and will demonstrate an ability to manage alliance relations with more tact and wisdom. Unfortunately, alliance politics have not been the strong suit of the past administration or of the Reagan administration so far, and it is truly unsettling to consider how much more damage might be done.