Veteran policy-maker Paul H. Nitze said yesterday he will not head the U.S. delegation to any new arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union that flow out of next week's Geneva talks. At the same time, administration sources said Moscow has given an early hint that its former strategic arms negotiator, Viktor Karpov, probably will lead a new Soviet team.

It had been widely believed that Nitze would be the future U.S. negotiator because of his appointment Dec. 5 as "special adviser" to Secretary of State George P. Shultz in connection with the Geneva talks. But Nitze said in a telephone interview that he made it clear from the first that his role will be limited to the advisory one he has already accepted.

Nitze gave no reason for declining to take the reins in what may be a complex, difficult and lengthy set of Soviet-American negotiations. Other officials said they believed that family members' health played a role in his decision.

Nitze's prominent role had been hailed by arms control advocates in recent weeks as a sign of administration seriousness in seeking to forge agreements with the Soviets. A U.S. official dealing with global strategy for more than 30 years, Nitze, 77, has a reputation as a conservative who is also inclined to flexibility as a "problem-solver" when agreement seems possible.

There has been no formal discussion in interagency forums of who would lead the American negotiating team if not Nitze, according to an administration official. One reason is that Washington is uncertain whether the three related issues up for bargaining -- strategic offensive arms, intermediate-range offensive arms and defensive arms -- are to be consolidated into a single set of negotiations or divided somehow among two or even three bargaining forums.

Shultz's meetings in Geneva with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko scheduled for next Monday and Tuesday are aimed at working out the framework and forum for such future full-scale negotiations as well as common understanding on the subject and objectives of those negotiations.

Administration officials believe there is a clue to future Soviet action in word from Moscow through official channels that Gromyko will be accompanied to Geneva by Karpov, who was chief Soviet negotiator in the 1982-83 strategic arms reduction talks (START), and Aleksei Obukhov, who was Karpov's senior deputy.

The former chief Soviet negotiator for the parallel 1981-83 intermediate-range nuclear force (INF) negotiations, Yuli Kvitsinsky, was not mentioned as accompanying Gromyko. Administration officials interpreted this as additional evidence that Moscow is downgrading the medium-range nuclear negotiations, which failed to head off deployment of new U.S. Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Western Europe.

Nitze was chief U.S. negotiator in the failed INF talks and thus Kvitsinsky's counterpart across the bargaining table and in a famous mid-1982 "walk in the woods," when the two men tried to forge an informal deal to break the impasse. The arrangement they discussed was later disowned by both governments.

Karpov is the Soviets' most experienced arms negotiator, having been deputy chief and, in the final stage, chief of Moscow's delegation to the 1972-79 strategic arms limitation talks (SALT II), chief Soviet negotiator in the 1981 first round of the INF talks, and chief negotiator at START from the first day in June 1982 until the Soviets left in December 1983, refusing to set the date for a next session.

Karpov served in the Soviet Embassy in Washington in the early 1960s and speaks English well.

Obukhov studied for his MA degree at the University of Chicago under an exchange program.

If the future U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations are split into two parts, offensive and defensive, the current U.S. strategic arms (START) negotiator, retired general Edward L. Rowny, would be a strong candidate to lead the offensive side, an administration official said. Five or six names have been mentioned in government circles for the defensive negotiations, the official said.

On the other hand, if the Soviets prefer a single negotiation encompassing both offensive and defensive systems, the same official said, the job of chief U.S. negotiator may go to someone new, perhaps from outside the government.