Movement toward renewal of arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union so far is mostly in the newspapers, according to officials familiar with developments on what President Reagan has called his top foreign policy priority for his second term.
Despite high-profile public statements by Reagan, Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, a senior Soviet diplomat identified in some newspapers as Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin and a host of others, the messages in official channels on this subject between Washington and Moscow have been sparse, according to officials in position to know.
The administration is preparing to provide more details to Moscow through diplomatic channels in coming days about the "umbrella talks" on arms control that Reagan proposed at the United Nations Sept. 24 and in a private meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko at the White House Sept. 28.
Until now the idea has been presented only in general terms that seem to have created more puzzlement than anything else in the Kremlin.
The central reason for the vagueness, according to officials who have participated in the interagency combat that has marked administration policy-making on this subject, is that there is no agreement in the executive branch about what is to be said or done if the Soviets can be enticed to join the United States under the umbrella.
Since Reagan's reelection Nov. 6, no interagency business meetings have been convened to resume drafting U.S. arms control positions. But in that same period, Cabinet members and lesser bureaucrats have gone public in attempts to protect their positions and to influence Reagan's decisions.
Despite the public statements and the history of arms control maneuvering the past four years, Reagan is depicted by a variety of officials as having not made up his mind about the key issues that continue to divide his administration on arms control.
If the Soviets will resume bargaining -- still an "iffy" question in the minds of senior policymakers -- Reagan sooner or later is going to have to make exceedingly difficult choices.
Some decisions will pit his hopes for offensive arms reduction against his hopes for a vast new defensive "Star Wars" array in space to protect the United States. Others will involve the degree of uncertainty or even risk regarding U.S. verification and Soviet compliance to be accepted in the interest of obtaining a deal.
In the meantime, the administration has papered over the unresolved state of its policy-making toward the Soviets by publicly announcing and privately advancing proposals, such as the umbrella talks and an exchange of monitors at nuclear test sites, which sound more like settled policy than they are.
A Pentagon official who was involved in the drafting process which produced"the "umbrella talks" and "exchange of monitors" proposals last September described them as among several "feel-good place-holders" in the United Nations speech to appeal to the peace sentiments of U.S. voters without engendering a showdown on the substance of administration policy.
On the organizational and procedural front, something close to a consensus has developed in reaction to the talk of an arms control "czar" with extraordinary power to structure contentious issues, who would be superimposed on the existing decision-making apparatus. The consensus, which suits all the major players around the president, is that working for or with such a "czar" would be a bad idea.
At the same time there is a large degree of accord, perhaps even a clearcut agreement, on creation of a new full-time post variously called "special envoy" or "special coordinator" in the hoped-for umbrella talks with the Soviets.
For the present at least, Shultz seems to have won the battle for day-to-day control over this official and his activities. At senior levels of the White House, the special envoy is being described as "an associate" of the secretary of state. The State Department view is that a prestigious arms control official would relate to his field of activity and to Shultz much as Ambassador Harry Shlaudeman does in his role as "special envoy" for Central American negotiations.
The naming of a special envoy for arms control is intimately connected with the concept of umbrella talks as a means of resuming arms control bargaining with the Soviets.
Negotiations on nuclear arms have been shut down for a year now since the Soviets walked out of the Geneva talks on medium-range missiles in Europe last Nov. 23 and refused to continue the strategic arms negotiations at their next scheduled session a few weeks later.
While refusing to negotiate about offensive nuclear weapons, supposedly as a protest against the U.S. missile deployments in Europe, the Soviets last June proposed to begin bargaining with the United States about restricting the militarization of outer space. Washington accepted, while expressing the view that offensive missiles must be included in the talk. The Soviets refused and the idea for talks collapsed in an exchange of recriminations.
The proposal for umbrella talks emerged from the realization last summer that the United States might be able to capitalize on Soviet eagerness to negotiate about space-based defensive systems in luring Moscow back to negotiations in the offensive missile area.
The bureaucratic antagonists known as the "two Richards," Assistant Secretary of State Richard R. Burt and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard N. Perle, reportedly agreed on the concept of new comprehensive talks involving both offensive and defensive aspects. There was and is no agreement, however, on the substance of those talks.
Another antecedent of the "umbrella" proposal was a concept known as "grand discourse" which emerged from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Experts there argued that abstract discussions of strategic theory had been a first phase of several earlier arms negotiations with the Soviets, and that it might be possible and even logical to begin by talking in such generalities now.
The most comprehensive official statement of the basis for umbrella talks are these sentences in Reagan's United Nations address:
"We need to extend the arms control process to build a bigger umbrella under which it can operate; a road map, if you will, showing where during the next 20 years or so these individual efforts can lead.
"This can greatly assist step-by-step negotiations and enable us to avoid having all our hopes or expectations ride on any single set or series of negotiations. If progress is temporarily halted at one set of talks, this newly established framework for arms control could help us take up the slack at other negotiations."
What that means in practice is a mystery to the senior Soviet diplomat who spoke to reporters last week at the Soviet Embassy here, requesting that he not be quoted by name.
A senior White House official, who asked not to be identified, defined the umbrella talks as "an exchange between our two countries designed to establish an appreciation on both sides of how we differ in our view of stability and how each of us believes stability can be enhanced through arms control."
Lest this seem vague, he added, "Beyond this conceptual formulation it could have specific approaches to enhancing stability in each of the areas of the military spectrum -- strategic arms, intermediate-range arms, chemical weapons, confidence-building measures, conventional forces in Europe and space systems."
Kenneth L. Adelman, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, described the umbrella talks in an interview as "a discussion with the Soviets on arms control in all its manifestations" and added that they would be "not negotiations in the sense of trying to get treaty language hammered out or trying for agreement on measures of account, but a forerunner of negotiations."
In his view, he said, the umbrella talks would encompass four ideas: "discussions of plans and policies of both sides, getting the Soviets back to actual negotiations by allowing them some midstep, sorting out what specific negotiations would encompass and envigorating multilateral arms control talks which are already going on. "
A Pentagon official had a less-sophisticated view of the umbrella talks and the other proposals in Reagan's U.N. speech. It was agreed that "we'd float these ideas ," he said, "and if the Soviets didn't shoot them down we'd put some flesh on the bones after the election." So far as he knows, he said, that fleshing out has yet to be done.
The key issue with the Soviets -- and the most serious bone of contention in the administration -- concerns the willingness of the United States to agree to negotiated restraints on antisatellite testing and development and/or other weapons in space.
In an Election Day interview with Washington Post staff writer Lou Cannon, Reagan spoke of his commitment to achieving the negotiated reduction of nuclear arsenals with the Soviets, and also of his commitment to his Strategic Defense Initiative, the program to envelop the United States in a protective array of defensive weapons to ward off nuclear attack.
Many experts, including a number in the administration, say those commitments are incompatible because the Soviets will not accept restraints on offensive nuclear forces while allowing unrestrained work to proceed on a system to make those forces ineffective.
Nobody has explained this to the president, according to several officials in the State and Defense departments. An arms control agency official said, "It has not occurred to the intellectual bright lights around the White House" to explain to Reagan that his two cherished goals conflict.
Asked about Reagan's comprehension, a senior White House official who works closely with the president in this field denied that a conflict exists. He said there is "no discontinuity" between reductions in present offensive nuclear arsenals and "investigations" through research of future defensive systems.
In the view of a Pentagon official, such proposals as even a limited moratorium on antisatellite tests, which has been advocated by the State Department in interagency discussions, is "fundamentally incompatible" with the pursuit of the Strategic Defense Initiative.
This is the argument the Defense Department is prepared to make when and if the day comes for the tough substantive decisions about arms control. Both sides are storing up the ammunition and polishing the weapons for what one official called "the shootout at the OK Corral."