Secretary of State George P. Shultz yesterday outlined a strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union stressing flexibility and pragmatism rather than the hard-line demands for change in Soviet behavior that characterized President Reagan's earlier years in office.

In particular, Shultz made clear that the administration has moved away from the position that negotiations on issues of interest to the Soviets be linked to improved Soviet conduct in other areas. Instead, he said, "linkage is a tactical question" whose use should be tempered by awareness that "it may not always make sense for us to break off negotiations or suspend agreements."

In remarks prepared for delivery in Los Angeles last night to the Rand-UCLA center for Soviet studies, Shultz sought to explain how the administration hopes to build on the recent talks at the White House between President Reagan and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko.

He also appeared to be setting the stage for the positions that Reagan will take on U.S.-Soviet relations in his debate Sunday night with Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale and continuing the upbeat tone about renewed dialogue that has been evident in recent exchanges between the U.S. and Soviet leaderships.

In that respect, Shultz gave an oblique but upbeat response to the points made by Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko in an interview Tuesday with The Washington Post. Chernenko called for an equitable agreement on at least one of four arms-control issues.

They were Moscow's proposal to prevent the militarization of outer space, a mutual freeze on nuclear weapons, ratification by the United States of test-ban treaties, and a U.S. pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.

Although he did not refer directly to Chernenko's four points, Shultz said: "We stand ready to join the Soviets in equal and verifiable arms-reduction agreements, and we are prepared to move rapidly to discuss both offensive and defensive systems, including those that operate in or through space."

"Our discussions with Mr. Gromyko lead me to conclude that the Soviets are interested in continuing our dialogue and in exploring ways to enrich that dialogue and turn it into concrete results," he added.

But, while he asserted that the "way is wide open" for improved relations, the main thrust of his speech dealt not with specific negotiations but with what he called the "larger conceptual issues that face us in managing U.S.-Soviet relations over the long term."

On the linkage issue, which has long been a matter of controversy in U.S.-Soviet relations, his remarks showed a substantial shift from the attitudes expressed by the Reagan administration at its outset. Shortly after his election in November 1980, Reagan told Time magazine:

"I agree that there has to be linkage between arms control and other areas of difference, and there has not been . . . . You cannot sit there and negotiate arms and pretend that the Soviet Union is not invading Afghanistan."

Similarly, Reagan's first secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig Jr., insisted that improved relations were dependent on Soviet conformity to an internationally accepted code of conduct. Shultz, in a 1982 news conference after the death of Soviet president Leonid I. Brezhnev, said the first steps toward better relations had to be taken by Moscow, and asserted, "We are looking for the substance of change in Soviet behavior."

By contrast, last night Shultz said: "There will be times when we must make progress in one dimension of the relationship contingent on progress in others . . . . At the same time, linkage as an instrument of policy has limitations; if applied rigidly, it could yield the initiative to the Soviets, letting them set the pace and the character of the relationship.

"We do not seek negotiations for their own sake; we negotiate when it is in our interest to do so. Therefore, when the Soviet Union acts in a way we find objectionable, it may not always make sense for us to break off negotiations or suspend agreements."

Despite Reagan's 1980 remarks that arms talks had to be linked to Soviet actions in Afghanistan, Shultz cited the retaliatory measures taken by then-President Jimmy Carter over Afghanistan as a failure of linkage.

"He Carter canceled the grain agreement, withdrew his own arms-limitation treaty from Senate consideration, refused participation in the Olympics and stopped the annual meetings with Foreign Minister Gromyko," Shultz said. "But did his actions serve our economic interests? Did they further progress toward a better arms agreement? Did they get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan?"

Shultz then contrasted Carter's actions with Reagan's response to the Soviet shooting down of a South Korean jetliner last year.

"President Reagan was not derailed from his steady, firm and realistic course," Shultz contended. "He never had illusions about the Soviet Union . . . . He made sure the world knew the truth about the incident. But he also sent our arms-control negotiators back to Geneva, because he believed that reducing nuclear weapons was a critical priority."

Shultz reiterated many of the administration's past tough attitudes, including the idea that the United States must have sufficient military and economic strength to counter Soviet challenges in all parts of the world. He said:

"What we have begun to do over the past four years, and continue to do in the future, is to persuade Soviet leaders that continued adventurism and intransigence offer no rewards. We have provided persuasive reasons for the Soviets to choose instead a policy of greater restraint and reciprocity. We must be comfortable with the requirements of such a strategy, including its price, its risks and its predictable periodic setbacks."