The Reagan administration often seems to see arms control as a lollipop, a reward to be handed out to the Soviet Union only if it behaves nicely. This is, I think, an unfortunate conception, one rationalizing arms competition rather than arms control, but underneath it is a serious argument that needs closer inspection than it has gotten so far.

The argument starts here: why is the world a dangerous place? The classical arms controllers say it's because of the growing number and power and spread of weapons. So control weapons. The Reaganites say it's because of the Soviet Union's political appetite, whetted by its growing military advantage.So control the Kremlin.

Track this exchange between Jeremy Stone of the Federation of American Scientists and Eugene V. Rostow, Reagan's new arms control chief.

Stone: "Nuclear weapons are not just big conventional weapons. If some controls are not put on these weapons, the likelihood of their use cannot be discounted. . . . Accordingly, we believe that the control of strategic weapons should be as insulated from other political problems as is humanly possible."

Rostow: "You favor [arms control] agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union which would leave that country free to expand its domain by methods conventional force aggression in areas outside the United States and perhaps Europe. I argue that such a course greatly increases the danger of war -- and of nuclear war -- and that the only feasible course is to insist on general and reciprocal respect for the rules of the Charter of the United Nations. . ."

Stone: "The Soviet Union is, of course, free to try to expand its domain by conventional means right now -- and the failure to reach a SALT agreement with them does not make them any less free to do so. Nor would the passage of SALT II liberate them to try conventional force aggression not otherwise indicated."

Rostow: "No, I am not against negotiating with the Soviet Union, or reaching agreement with them, until the lions and the lamb lie down together. On the contrary, I favor doing so as part of a process or restoring the vitality of the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations regarding the international use of force."

Instinctively, I favor the view of the Federation of American Scientists, Paul Warnke's Committee for National Security and others, holding that it is plenty to ask of arms control merely that it trim as best it can the dangers and costs of Soviet-American political competition, which, I would say, is going to go on indefinitely anyway. To ask that it also take the Soviet Union out of this competition is to place on a demonstrably frail instrument of policy burden it cannot possibly sustain on its own.

Smart political people add that distrust of Moscow is so pervasive right now that arms control can't be sold to Americans if it promises only to make Soviet-American elbow-wrestling marginally safer and cheaper. Nervous Americans might take that defense of arms control as a sort of invitation to the Kremlin to make trouble.

So as a practical matter, it is probably necessary to package arms control with at least some prospect of Soviet political restraint. That carries a risk: if the Soviets don't act with restraint, arms control suffers. This is the sense in which people say that linkage exists whether it is acknowledged or not. I accept that.

To Rostow, however, the expectation of restraint in Soviet political behavior is not just bait for arms control. It is the whole point of the exercise, and without it -- without restraint and repect for rules and the charter, for what he calls "world public order" -- he falls back from arms control. Military people in the administration may see some use for it to limit the Soviet threat. Diplomatic officials plainly do see some use for mollifying allies. Political operatives may come to see some use for reassuring voters. Rostow takes his Reaganism straight.

It is a matter of temperament and world view. Just the opposite of a cynic, Rostow, with Reagan, has a certain Utopian vision of an orderly world He defines it in terms of American primacy, and he perceives disorder as a product of Soviet machination: for him the ultimate disorder is not so much nuclear was as muclear blackmail. He longs to move to what looks to me like a nostalgia-distorted ideal of the policy of containment that we pursued 1) before Soviet power started to draw abreast of American power and 2) before so much power spilled out of Soviet and American hands altogether into the hands of assorted unruly local actors around the world.

Rostow sees us forced to choose between controlling arms and containing the Kremlin. He is more of a Reaganite, I hope, than Reagan.