Maybe George Shultz has taken the thrill out of foreign policy-making. But if it's agreed that before you can make a coherent foreign policy you have to have a coherent way of making it, then the change is invigorating. Where Alexander Haig was volatile, combative, in perpetual and sometimes purposeless motion, Shultz is stable. He is unimpressed by preeminence and prerogatives for their own sake, and possessed of that special toughness that does not have to be regularly paraded to be recognized.

That's what old hands are saying, and you can put their commercials down as no more than might be expected from old hands who have, by and large, been told they are staying. It is less easy to discount the detailed description they offer of style, technique and method. Says a close associate: "My impression so far is of a very careful guy -- cautious would be the wrong word -- in terms of preparation, and very uncomfortable if he is not prepared. His approach is, don't come in and tell me what you think ought to be done about a problem until you have told me, first, what the problem is, and second, what your objective is. Then tell me what it is you think we ought to do about it."

Methodical, then, is the operative word; taking care is the operating principle. What this entails in practice is worth examining for the future impact it may have on U.S. policy. And the best model at hand is to be found in the process leading up to the president's Middle East speech. Once the secretary and the president had agreed on the urgent need for a "Reagan" policy, Shultz tackled the problem as one attacks an artichoke -- from the outside, leaf by leaf.

At the heart was a "core group," including the undersecretary for political affairs, Larry Eagleburger; the director of the policy planning staff, Paul Wolfowitz; the assistant secretary for Middle East matters, Nicholas Veliotes; the special envoy for the Camp David "autonomy talks," Richard Fairbanks; State's Israeli desk officer; a man from the CIA.

But before getting to the heart, Shultz started outside, meeting with (among others) Henry Kissinger, former Dupont chairman Irving Shapiro and a former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia and Labor Department official, Laurence Silberman. The American ambassadors to Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan were called home for consultation.

Only then did Shultz embark on a series of at least four sessions with Ronald Reagan. "One thing Shultz did very carefully," says one who took part, "was to devote a full session to telling the president what the dangers were, what can go wrong, what are the problems you may have to face. He was careful about that."

With the same painstaking precision, Shultz is closing in on Namibia, Latin America, Asia, Atlantic Alliance relations. The process strikes some people as too slow, and others as playing it too safe.

My own guess is that a well-prepared George Shultz will be coming at Reagan and the rest of the foreign policy apparatus with a number of significant suggestions for changing (or steadying) course. The net effect is likely to be: (1) a gradual cooling of the sort of ideological frenzies that produced the excesses of the early emphasis on El Salvador or the needless acrimony of the gas pipeline fracas with Europe; and (2) more pragmatic approaches that are more likely to work.