WHEN I temporarily left my profession of journalism to spend a few years in government, I had the innocent idea that diplomacy would be like a well-ordered chess game. Those brainy foreign affairs specialists at the United States State Department and in the White House would have the game thought out several moves ahead. Each countermove by the other side would have been anticipated and planned for in a cool and programmed manner.
What I discovered is that diplomacy is not unlike the newspaper business. Although there has been a lot of advance thinking and planning, events rush along in a kind of orchestrated confusion until five minutes before deadline.
In a government as large as that of the United States, it should probably not be surprising that decisionmaking is attended by as much confusion as it is.
Into this government's top positions are lured men who have run corporate empires and massive enterprises. They are forceful and opinionated. As they think through their recommendations to the President, they and their departments sometimes joust, and pull, and push.
The press loves these stories of internal ``disarray,'' but probably the President is well served by getting a diversity of opinions on the momentous decisions he must make. It would be all too dangerous if he were surrounded by yes men who offered a monolithic view.
The bureaucracy does, of course, offer opportunities to frustrate and hobble the decisionmaking process. There are interdepartmental committees, and position papers, and counterposition papers.
But in the end the President sits down with a few key advisers and makes his decision on arms control, or South Africa, or the Philippines, or whatever the issue is.
It is well to remember this background as we contemplate the course of Washington's negotiations with the Soviet Union.
Clearly, there are senior officials in the administration who have different viewpoints, for example, on arms control, the key issue between the United States and the Soviet Union.
It has been suggested that Secretary of State George P. Shultz on the one hand, and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Casey on the other hand, had divergent views over whether to stick with arms ceilings set in the unratified 1979 treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons. Mr. Shultz is supposed to have wanted to hold to those levels; Mr. Weinberger and Mr. Casey are said to have wanted to abandon them.
The administration publicly seemed to set a zigzag course in announcing what it had decided to do, but on balance it seemed to come down on the side of being willing to abandon the treaty's levels. That decision, as interpreted, drew a lot of negative reaction overseas and in the Congress of the United States.
What should not be forgotten, however, is the common denominator threaded through this administration's approach to the Soviets. Whatever the differences there may be in the Cabinet over policy, there is a common wariness toward the Soviets, common agreement that any deals cut with the Soviets must be adequately monitored and verified in later years, and common agreement that what the Soviets respect most is strength.
A string of American Presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan have learned at first hand that Soviet leaders are tough to deal with, and though there may be differences in this administration over the tactics of negotiation, there is very little difference of view about the character of the party on the other side of the table.
Ronald Reagan's political career has been marked by tough stands going into the negotiating process. Had he not taken so determined a stand on budget cutting, it is doubtful that Congress would have been impelled to such drastic actions as have unfolded.
He has taken a tough stand on his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and a tough stand on SALT II. In the face of all this, the Soviets have offered new proposals which President Reagan says may represent a turning point. Moscow, he says, has ``begun to make a serious effort'' on arms control.
Could it be that Moscow understands very well the Reagan administration's firmness of purpose, despite diversions and divisions in Washington over tactics?