About a year ago I was listening to an expert whose opinion I value drone on about the sorry state of our nation's defense capabilities. His opinion was that we had allowed the Soviet Union to take the lead in a number of strategic areas and that even if we rearranged our priorities immediately the Soviet Union would continue to widen its advantage through the middle 1980s. He also predicted that the Russians would use this military advantage to exact concessions from us that we could not make and that the chances were therefore good that we would have a nuclear "confrontation" before the decade was out.

"You mean you think there will be a nuclear war sometime in the 1980s," I said. Sadly, he nodded his agreement.

"Then I guess what you are telling us is that we ought to provoke an incident and have it out right now," I said. He seemed confused by my suggestions.

"Well, if the Russians are inevitably going to increase their military advantage and we can be sure they will use it to exact concessions from us that we simply cannot make, wouldn't it be better to have the war now when we have some chance of winning?"

No, came back the answer. This nation stands for peace and, regardless of the inevitability of the situation, we must hope for the best until we again achieve some breakthrough that restores our strategic advantage. In the meantime, his best advice was to pray.

Luckily, I don't believe in the inevitability; and while I believe this nation has been foolish to let its defenses fall into a state of disarray, a little wit in the conduct of its foreign policy would be of more value than the discovery of a new bomb.

What people sense about Reagan and Carter is that they both believe somewhat the same operative facts expressed by my friend the expert, but that Reagan might well concede the inevitabilities of war too easily and Carter might behave so passively that war could resuit from the false assumption that there is nothing we would be willing to go to war about.

It is not unreasonable for people to wish for a president to fall somewhere between these extremes of aggressiveness and passivity. But if these remain the perceptions that they are forced to deal with, Carter will have the better of things. The country would agree with the illogical conclusions of my friend; and even though passivity is intolerable to a country that thrives on activism, it is preferable to a majority of voters if the alternative is a meaningful risk to survival itself.

Reagan says he is a man of peace who seeks only to reassert the importance of strength as a guarantor of a peaceful world. In this regard, he is in line with every postwar president as well as the great lessons of history, which demonstrate that war was often the direct result of perceived weakness. However, every American president since Eisenhower has also committed this country to the pursuit of arms control and the easing of tensions with the Soviet Union. Reagan finds SALT II deficient and stands willing to commit the country to an arms race in the hope of getting a better treaty.

What bothers people about this is that it sounds like Reagan would be suspicious of any treaty the Russians would be willing to sign. He reminds people of the old Groucho Marx line that he wouldn't belong to any club that would have him as a member. In the absence of any detailed statement on his part of what further concessions he would hope to obtain, the fear is raised that he is already admitting the inevitability of confrontation.

I know Ronald Reagan well, and in my opinion he would be one of the last people on this planet who would knowingly provoke a nuclear war. I further think that Carter's presidency stands most severely indicted in the area of foreign affairs, where the perception that this is a weak and mindless country has sapped our ability to maintain the confidence of our allies and to convince our adversaries of the seriousness of our purpose. Renegade governments have the audacity to hold our diplomats hostage, and throughout the world people who have a right to rely on our power shake their heads at our aimlessness.

One of the biggest lies about presidential politics is that presidential elections are decided by domestic issues. Pollsters perpetuate this myth by pointing to the fact that inflation or joblessness or energy always leads the list and that the situation in Afghanistan, the Middle East or Iran hardly ever scores. Well, what is so obvious to all the people that they would never think of mentioning it to a pollster is that survival comes first -- well before inflation, well before you even worry about whether you have a job.

Which man to trust your life to is the paramount issue involving the presidency, and it is the biggest foreign policy question there is. It has played a major role in the outcome of every presidential election since 1952. So sensitive are the people about it that in 1976, when Gerald Ford made a misstatement concerning Poland, he lost the incumbent's advantage in claiming the trust of the people to safeguard their lives.

So all of Carter's failures will be of no benefit to Reagan if the people continue to believe that he has no real strategy for peace, that he has accepted the inevitability of confrontation, that he would too easily compromise survival for peace.