The Geneva meeting between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko produced world-class smiles everywhere. President Reagan is pleased. So are the Soviets. So are the West Europeans and other U.S. allies who have a stake in controlling nuclear arms.
Geneva was the easy part. The United States and the Soviet Union are still far apart on substantive issues, and long and difficult negotiations lie ahead.
But the smiles need not fade as long as the obstacles and difficulties are not used by either Moscow or Washington to justify anything less than an all-out effort to make the negotiations succeed in the only way that counts--making the people of the world as safe as they can be when they share a planet with nuclear arsenals.
The agreements that emerged from more than 12 years of negotiations on SALT I and SALT II served their purpose. But they did not stop the arms race. They only gave it a formal track on which to run. President Reagan says that this is not good enough, that only an actual reduction in nuclear weapons will do. He is right. He also is entitled to the disciplined and dedicated support of his Administration as he tries to make the Geneva beginning turn out the way it must.
Those earlier arms negotiations were themselves enormously difficult and complicated. The new talks promise to be even more so--not just because of the sharply different perceptions between Moscow and Washington about who is threatening whom, but also because of the structure of the talks that bring strategic arms, medium-range missiles in Europe and defensive systems under one tent.
This will require closer consultation with the Europeans. The Europeans, anxious for progress in the talks on medium-range missiles, will be tempted to exert pressure on Washington to make unwise concessions in long-range weapons. The Soviets can be counted on to play off the allies against the United States.
It is not clear what kind of restraints the Soviets think can and should be negotiated on the Reagan "Star Wars" missile defense program. For several years to come it will be a research effort not requiring tests or other actions obviously in violation of the ABM treaty. But "Star Wars" could become a complicating factor in the other two areas of negotiation.
Finally, the Administration negotiating position will be subject to kibitzing from Congress and to sharp differences between the Pentagon and the State Department.
It is impossible to foresee the course of the negotiations; up to now the two sides have not even agreed on an opening date. But certain principles should be basic in the U.S. negotiating approach.
One is that the goal is not an agreement for agreement's sake, but a stable nuclear balance. Stability would flow from cutting the number of strategic warheads on each side and shifting the emphasis from large missiles carrying multiple warheads (MIRVs) to smaller missiles carrying a single warhead.
Missiles with up to 10 warheads, crouched in fixed silos, are both vulnerable and threatening to the other side. That is the worst possible combination because it forces nations that depend on MIRV missiles into a dangerous hair-trigger posture of use-them-or-lose-them in event of crisis.
One way out is the Scowcroft Commission's advice that smaller, single-warhead missiles that could be moved around would be less vulnerable and less threatening and therefore less likely to invite attack in a crisis.
Through SALT I and SALT II the Soviets cherished their superheavy MIRV missiles. Negotiators on both sides were forced to leave loopholes for pet weapons projects of their military leaders; that is to arms control what a gap in the cage is to a pet rabbit. The President says that it will be different this time. We say that it must be.