As the Warsaw Pact's sweeping disarmament program poured forth last week, Western spokesmen initially were quoted as saying that while the proposals would have to be studied, most did not appear to be anything new.

After effectively giving the proposals a shrug, however, President Reagan and European leaders last weekend welcomed the Soviet spirit of good will. And, in the current atmosphere of East-West competition over who is doing more to promote the cause of nuclear arms reduction, the Warsaw Pact's eye-catching agenda of ideas--a nonaggression treaty, pledges of no first use of weapons and tacit acceptance of on-site verification of arms agreements--scored a substantial propaganda plus.

Shouldn't the initiatives be tested for sincerity, opposition politicians asked? Wouldn't a nonaggression pact be a major advance over an all-out arms race?

The fact is, according to diplomatic and academic specialists, that strictly speaking the Soviet proposals are not new.

Almost yearly since the mid-1950s, at the United Nations, at Communist Party congresses, at previous Warsaw Pact summits and in summits with Western leaders, the Soviets have put forth major disarmament proposals. No major Soviet declaration would be complete without one. But experience has shown that to achieve results the bargaining on the offers from both sides needs to center on specific issues and be backed by political will.

At the United Nations, a host of Soviet-sponsored resolutions has been adopted--such as one offered in 1976 by Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko advocating non-use of force in international relations. But, as John Erickson of Edinburgh University said in an interview this weekend, "Most of the Soviet ideas are so delphic and broad, that it is hard to know what they mean" except, of course, that they do not work. Force in international relations remains as pervasive today as it was before the resolution.

Translating sweeping commitments to disarmament goals, whoever advocates them, into binding treaties is a vastly complicated job. As the failure of nonaggression pacts of the past have shown, as the U.N. charter demonstrates today and as even recent U.S.-Soviet agreements make clear, relations between states do not respect noble pronouncements.

At the height of detente in 1973, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a document setting out the principles governing their relations--just the type of declaration envisioned in the Warsaw Pact communique. These covered such things as consultations in time of tension and notification of developing problem areas.

A few months later when war broke out in the Middle East, the consultative link worked. But the record of the ensuing decade makes sadly clear, when ties between the superpowers deteriorated, principles of detente were ignored. In Angola, Afghanistan and Poland, the Soviets have acted in their own interests despite U.S. protests. The United States is now embarked on the biggest peace-time defense buildup in history.

Instead of tension being reduced over the years, it has increased.

In other areas there have been similar disappointments. Diplomats negotiated for years at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to reach what is known as the Helsinki Final Act signed by 35 nations in 1975. This was initially a Soviet idea. It covered military confidence-building measures, terms for improved economic relations and broader human contacts otherwise known as human rights.

But because East-West relations have soured since then, the Helsinki process has turned largely into a forum for vituperation. The signatory nations, meeting in Madrid in a follow-up session, have been unable to agree on a document that could close the meeting and keep the concept alive--against the hope that someday it may be useful.

Then, there are the Mutual Balanced Force Reduction talks in Vienna, another marathon bargaining session with the goal of drawing down the respective conventional armed forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. But in years of meetings, the two sides have been unable to agree even on how many forces are at issue.

So does anything work?

The answer is yes. The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban, the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the treaty limiting anti-ballistic missiles and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty are examples of successes in recent years. In each case, they were the products of painstaking negotiations by technical experts backed by political will on all sides.

The prerequisite was that the bargaining was on specific, concrete items--weapons systems or tests--that could be curbed and monitored. The parallel talks under way in Geneva on reducing intermediate-range nuclear weapons to be based in Europe and on cutting superpower strategic arms fall into this category and have realistic chances therefore of ending in meaningful treaties.

If the past pattern is repeated, what is essential is that the Soviet and U.S. governments make the political judgment that a bargain has to be struck. Pressure on the United States from its European allies is an important element on the U.S. side. In the Soviet case, the Politburo led by Yuri Andropov will be deciding how much of a risk it is prepared to take by reducing its present level of armament.

These are hard choices. Broad, generalized calls for disarmament such as those made by the Warsaw Pact last week are the easy first step in a negotiating strategy for peace. The detailed accounting of how much to give up, where and under what conditions comes much later. The only place where that is happening today is the Geneva talks.