THE PACE is quickening in efforts to consummate a first arms control agreement in the Reagan-Gorbachev era and to make possible another, perhaps early summit between the two leaders. Yesterday a major contribution to that double end was made by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

It fell to Mr. Kohl to act because of the peculiar role West Germany plays in Soviet-American negotiations on a treaty to eliminate all of both powers' intermediate-range missiles. The Germans are not at Geneva. But they have 72 Pershing IA missiles whose dismantling the Soviets have demanded on grounds that the 72 carry American warheads. Rightly and necessarily, the United States has refused to negotiate away the arms of an absent ally. NATO is an alliance whose members' quiet but abiding fear is that their interests will be shorted in a great-power deal. On this wicket the Geneva talks were stuck until yesterday.

Chancellor Kohl did not want Germany -- or, within the German political scene, himself or his party -- to bear the onus of obstructing an agreement important to Germany's chief patron. Nor did he want to be held responsible for taking something away from Germany's sovereign interest by surrendering easily on the Pershings. So he crafted a rather elaborate position whose essence is that 1) the Pershing decision is a German decision and 2) his government will undertake to let the 72 missiles die a timely death of obsolescence over the period that the great powers eliminate their own intermediate-range missiles.

The debate over removing missiles of this class has always hinged, in a technical sense, on the issue of ''coupling.'' If this class is removed, the argument goes, it may knock out a key rung of the ladder of flexible response, forcing upon the United States an impossible choice of surrender or Armageddon in a crisis and thereby decoupling Europe from the American nuclear guarantee. Germans, and not only Germans, ponder this question.

Chancellor Kohl has decided, nonetheless, that the kind of coupling offered by retaining intermediate-range missiles is less valuable than the kind of coupling provided by deepening political cooperation and understanding. It is a difficult choice but a wise choice that is bound to repay Germany in American respect.