Whenever a new administration comes to power in Washington after years of being in the opposition, it does so as the result of a political campaign in which, disregarding foreign opinion, it addresses the domestic electorate only. The habit of indifference to the effect of its foreign policy pronouncements on opinion among the nation's allies is apt to persist through its first months in power.

So the Reagan administration, concerned to show itself more belligerent than its predecessor, initially alarmed the NATO allies by giving the impression that it was quite prepared to face the contingency of a nuclear war on their soil. This insensitivity to opinion among the allies has now been corrected by the address President Reagan delivered May 9 at Eureka College. In it, he defined his administration's objective as that of peace based on "military balance, economic security, regional stability, arms reduction and dialogue." He even offered partnership to a Soviet Union that refrained from "expanding its conquests."

The ultimate objective of peace depends on the attainment of certain more specific objectives. Chief of these is the mutual deterrence provided by a balance of power. Ever since Thucydides, it has been received wisdom that the peaceful operation of a free society, domestic or international, depends on the maintenance of a balance of power among its components. The indispensable basis for peace in the international society is an international balance of power. It was the neglect of this principle that led to the Napoleonic wars and the two world wars of this century.

Washington today is acting on the premise that the balance of power between the Western community of nations and the Eastern has already been allowed to shift in some degree against the Western. It must therefore re-establish it by confronting Moscow with an armaments program of its own that will serve to persuade it that its best course is to negotiate a mutual limitation acceptable to both sides. Implicit in this program are the two successive stages of confrontation and negotiation, the one culminating in the other.

All we have had so far is confrontation. It is the nature of confrontation that, as in the case of a gladiatorial combat, it appears to be susceptible of resolution only by the final victory of one side, corresponding to the final defeat of the other. It has the form of a zero-sum game, one in which any gain on one side is a loss on the other, any loss on one side a gain on the other. In itself, it appears not to be susceptible of any settlement that, because it benefits both sides, is acceptable to both.

However, if and when negotiation follows confrontation, it can only be on the basis of finding common ground. What does not come out clearly, in the present stage of confrontation, is that the common ground is potentially immense, that the United States and the Soviet Union have, with the rest of the world, a common interest in the settlement of their differences that quite transcends their opposed interests. It is in the transcendent nature of this common interest that all hope lies.

The primary common interest is in the avoidance of a nuclear war--for we must suppose that such a war would spell an ultimate defeat for both sides, indeed for civilization itself. Second only to this, there is the common interest in reducing the moral and economic burden of the great armaments on both sides, a burden susceptible of extreme reduction if agreement could be reached on the minimum requirements of the mutual deterrence essential to the maintenance of the balance of power.

Confrontation, carried too far by either side, would threaten these common interests. If one side should push the other beyond tolerable limits, it might thereby detonate the war in which it would itself be consumed. To take an extreme example, if Moscow should establish a position of dominance over Central America, and should then move to mount a nuclear armament there, the visceral reaction of the American nation might be such that it would lose its self-control, the result being the nuclear destruction of the Soviet Union.

Similarly, if the United States should succeed by subversion in detaching the Ukraine from the Soviet Union, this "success" might, by making Moscow desperate, lead to the nuclear incineration of the United States. Therefore, even if the Soviet Union had the means of mounting a nuclear armament in Central America, or if the United States was able to subvert the Ukraine, its own interest would be opposed to doing so.

Under the circumstances, the ultimate objective of policy on either side must be limited. There is an old rule of diplomacy, that one must beware of pushing one's opponent against a closed door.

Finally, it is only on the basis of such a clearly limited policy that the United States can hold the allegiance of its allies.