No one supposes that the adminstration will soon tailor its disarmament policy to comply with the outcome of next week's balloting on the proposed nuclear freeze. The main significance of the nuclear freeze question on Tuesday's ballot in the District of Columbia and nine states is that it is there. It is there because Americans are increasingly uneasy over what they imagine to be the growing likelihood of nuclear war.

The question, really, is whether they will feel more secure with a freeze on nuclear armaments, to be followed by arms reduction, or with a policy that attempts to prevent war by making America's nuclear arsenal clearly superior to that of the Soviet Union.

The administration insists that it, too, wants arms reduction. But it opposed a House resolution that would urge the United States and the Soviet Union to negotiate a freeze with a view toward bringing a total halt to the nuclear arms race.

The administration's view is that such talk is premature, that it would hamper the United States in the arms talks it has already begun, and that it would dangerously weaken our nuclear deterrence. But deterrence, at least as the administration talks about it, is about as frightening as the arms race -- indeed it seems to be the same thing. Listen to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger:

"The policy of deterrence," he said in a recent letter to newspaper editors in the 15 NATO countries, "is difficult for some to grasp because it is based on a paradox. But this is quite simple: to make the cost of a nuclear war much higher than any possible 'benefit' to the country starting it. If the Soviets know in advance that a nuclear attack on the United States could and would bring swift nuclear retaliation, they would never attack in the first place. They would be 'deterred' from ever beginning a nuclear war."

That is perfectly reasonable. What is unreasonable (or at least strikes me as so) is Weinberger's contention that there is under way a Soviet buildup that renders our deterrence not credible and that, therefore, instead of talking freeze, we should be racing to catch up. If deterrence lies in our ability to make the cost of a Soviet attack much higher than any benefit derived from it, we are there already, and for the foreseeable future. After all, we have something like 9,000 deliverable nuclear warheads, far more than enough to wipe out the Soviet Union, even if a significant number of our missiles are disabled in a Russian first strike. True, we couldn't destroy Russia, even in a retaliatory strike, without offering ourselves up for destruction as well, but that is the nature of "mutual assured destruction" that has been the basic deterrent for years.

What is new -- and what triggered the international outcry that produced the Weinberger letter -- is the leaked administration study that talks of surviving and winning a "protracted" nuclear war. The study hints that the old definition of deterrence -- "mutual assured destruction" -- lacks credibility because its use would require the willful annihilation of civilization. What we need, to make our deterrent capability credible, is the ability to win anything the Russians start.

Unfortunately, if that makes sense for us, it must also make sense for the Russians. And that means they must catch up to any advantage we have over them, and maintain any advantage they have over us: a protracted, expensive and dangerous nuclear arms race by any definition. Some of us think it more rational and less hazardous to go the other way: stop the race and then begin a mutual reduction of our mutually destructive power. That's why the freeze is on the ballot.