West German Economics Minister Otto Lambsdorff yesterday expressed serious doubt that the United States, West Germany or Japan could effectively lead the world to a new growth plateau, as desirable as that may be.

In answers to questions following a speech to the National Press Club, Lambsdorff pointed out that, after a negative growth rate last year, his country would have to make a major expansionary effort merely to achieve zero real economic growth this year.

He said that having allowed welfare programs to grow faster than the economy itself, his country "will have to take leave of the happier days of annually increasing real income for some time to come, although not forever.

"We must submit to the discipline of investing more than we consume for a few years," he said.

Lambsdorff said that the present coalition government in West Germany--which faces an election March 6--believes that the time has come for economic retrenchment. "In talking about expansionist policies , everyone is pointing to his neighbor," Lambsdorff said, "but who will add to his deficits? So I don't think this expansionist suggestion is very helpful. It would mean we have learned nothing since 1978. So I think the 'locomotive' should be kept in the shelter."

The 'locomotive' reference was to the American government effort at the Bonn summit in that year to get West Germany and Japan to lead the way to worldwide economic expansion by added domestic "reflationary" measures. Lambsdorff and some other German politicians have since blamed post-1978 German economic problems largely on the 'locomotive' theory.

In thus suggesting that West Germany is not in a position to be a leader in world economic growth, Lambsdorff took a position that contrasted with a view offered yesterday by Secretary of State George P. Shultz before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Shultz said that he was optimistic about a world economic upturn and that "the industrialized countries are now poised to lead an expansion of the world economy." He noted that "in particular," the United States is on the road to recovery.

Last Friday, the International Monetary Fund's interim committee refrained from a broad call for expansion, as suggested by Third World countries, noting that inflation is still a problem for several major nations.