Neither we nor the Soviet Union can possibly want to be in our present position, where our very existence depends on the nuclear restraint of the other. There is only one way out -- we must each negotiate with the other not only a major reduction of nuclear weapons but an absolute end to any military dependence on them.

Negotiating will be tough. We each have major and nearly insoluble problems with the other. The West feels threatened by the enormous Russian military buildup, by their worldwide trouble-making under the rubric of "wars of national liberation," by their unprincipled subjugation of their neighbors. They in turn recognize us as their most dangerous potential military adversary, as the stumbling block to their worldwide ambitions, and as the organizers of international alliances to contain them.

And we have a lot of experience negotiating with the Soviet Union -- much of it bad. We see them as adversary, devoid of good will, manipulatory, unwilling to compromise. The see us as uncertain, compliant, willing to yield after a while to intransigent positions, for the sake of agreement. Both views have a good deal of validity.

Yet both are beside the point. The object isn't to "win" a negotiation, or to end up with "superior" nuclear forces. The object is to make the chance of nuclear war as small as possible. We have other political objectives. So has the Soviet Union. Most of them conflict intensely. But this one objective we share, and it is far more important than all the rest put together.

The key is to find our common interests, and they are not hard to find; we have a common interest in not being blown up. We also have a common interest, as great powers, that we not be subject to nuclear blackmail from smaller power or terrorist groups. This is plenty to build agreement on, but only if we detach these overriding problems from all the other issues between us. The notion that we can punish or coerce the Soviet Union for its behvior by withholding our agreement on nuclear weapons is fallacious. Our need is every bit as great as theirs. If we wait until they shape up, to our standard, on every bone of contention between us, we will wait a long, long time. And the clock of nuclear danger is ticking away.

So we have the basis for negotiation. What precisely should we propose? Here is a list, for openers:

Immediate equal reduction of nuclear weapons of all categories, as proposed by George Kennan. This can become a progressive process.

Renunciation of nuclear initiatives for any purpose whatever.

Renunciation of any "counterforce" strategy against strategic nuclear forces.

Concurrent strong opposition to any form of nuclear weapons proliferation, by our clients or theirs. The first step must be our own reductions, or we have no credibility whatever.

Are such agreements possible? Yes, because the Soviet Union and the United States would gain by them. Can they be verified? Yes. Weapons turned in can be counted. Weapons could be hidden away in small quantities, but only very large quantities would make a difference. And very large quantities we would know about. Nuclear initiatives are foreshadowed by the nature of the weapons, for example a "neutron" bomb must be made and deployed before it can be used. And opposition to nuclear weapons proliferation must by nature be public, or it isn't real opposition.

Supposing we believe all this; what are the Russian views? We know that they are suspicious, and slow to react to new proposals. We know that their military literature abounds in references to nuclear war exchanges and mixed nuclear-conventional campaigns. (To a certain extent, so does ours.) We know that some of their military exercises and some of their military equipage bear out these ideas. But there is no evidence that the Soviet Union is irrational. The compelling logic against the use of nuclear weapons applies eqully to the Russians as to us. The Party leadership has given every signal that they understand that logic. And the last effort to reach a limiting agreement, imperfect though it was, was terminated not by the Soviet Union, but by the Americans when the Senate refused to approve SALT II. u

The nuclear preparations of the Soviet military can therefore be regarded as worst-case insurance, as indeed ours should be.

So we have our prescription for negotiations. We need be realistic, hardheaded and specific. Generalities about the "spirit" of Camp David or anywhere else will get us nothing but disappointment. And we must confine negotiations severely to our common interests: to reduce the chance of nuclear war. No attempted arm-twisting on other subjects, no attempts to gain points by "winning." If we do this, we and they have a good chance to reach agreements that will in some measure lift this cloud of danger from us.

President Reagan has an unmatched opportunity. He alone can initiate this process without suspicion of weakness. The American people wish, and he wishes, for America to have unmatched strength -- military, economic, political strength and strength of purpose. Yet the president has common sense in uncommon mesure, and will surely see that our military strength lies in people and forces far removed from these useless and dangerous nuclear weapons. Should he act on this perception, and should he succeed, history will record him as one of our greatest presidents.