Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. arrived here today to begin the task of reconciling the desire of America's European allies for quick resumption of arms talks with the Soviet Union on Europe-based nuclear missiles with the Reagan administration's preference for a more cautious approach.
The debate over intermediate-range missile negotiations is expected to be the central issue when foreign ministers of the 15-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization begin meeting here Monday.
It is a meeting the Reagan administration regards as important to its hopes of convincing the Europeans that it is capable of reasserting strong American leadership, the image of which has been undercut in recent years by internal bickering and charges of U.S. failure to consult its allies.
A senior official aboard Haig's plane said during the flight here: "Clearly, our allies are going to be taking the measure of the Reagan administration . . . It will be the first collective view of us by the alliance as a whole, and we intend to outline President Reagan's approach to East-West relations, with its emphasis on restraint and reciprocity as the key to dealing with the Soviets."
In his talks, Haig will be discussing problems ranging from continuing concern over the situation in Poland to issues outside the normal sphere of NATO interest such as racial tensions in southern Africa and the increased fighting in Lebanon.
But the most immediate test of Haig's standing within NATO -- where he served for five years as commander of alliance military forces -- will turn on whether he can achieve a consensus on how to proceed on missile negotiations.
NATO decided in 1979 to deploy in Western Europe beginning in late 1983 new, U.S.-made, medium-range missiles capable of striking into the Soviet Union. But the decision initially was coupled with an offer to the Warsaw Pact to negotiate limitations on these so-called theater nuclear forces.
Prompting the offer was deepening pacifist sentiment in West Germany and other NATO contries, and those governments now are worried that failure to start on arms talks could cause a political reaction that would threaten the planned stationing of the new missiles.
So far, however, the Reagan administration, while saying it wants to resume negotiations with the Soviets, has refused to commit itself to a timetable. Last month, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger sought to link the prospect of talks with the threat of Soviet intervention in Poland.
With the waning of the Polish crisis, the impatience of the allies, notably West Germany, has risen again, and they are expected to press Haig for a U.S. commitment to a specific plan and timetable for approaching Moscow.
U.S. official accompanying Haig have been secretive about the approach he will take. But they did indicate that the matter was discussed at a National Security Council meeting just before his departure from Washington, and they hinted that he has been given considerable flexibility to try to seek an accommodation with the NATO allies.
A major problem, U.S. sources noted, is that the theater nuclear forces talks originally were planned to become part of the overall U.S.-Soviet strategic arms limitation talks (SALT). But Reagan's rejection of the SALT II treaty negotiated by the Carter administration has cast into question whether there will be a third round of SALT talks. And, the sources said, until that is resolved, there will be no handy framework for the theater nuclear forces negotiations.
The general expectation is that Haig will offer to begin a series of preliminary probes, perhaps including a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, to explore the possibility of full-scale arms limitation talks, within the SALT framework or separately.