By most accounts -- except, of course, President Reagan's -- the Venice economic summit produced no significant tangible results beyond ratification of existing agreements made at lower levels. Predictably, this has led to the suggestion that the economic summits have outlived their usefulness, and therefore should be dropped.

But that would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Despite this year's failure, and disappointing results at some other summits, process should be maintained -- but improved.

"The summit is the only 'game in town,' to deal with a complicated, interdependent world. To judge the process by one or two meetings is very simplistic," says Sylvia Ostry, the top Canadian economist who will have a major role in planning next year's summit in Toronto.

One could hardly pick a less opportune time to be talking of ending the summits: We are likely in the next few years to have a succession of banking, debt and trade crises that will demand regular and face-to-face meetings of world leaders. Economic summits would have to be reinvented if they were abruptly abandoned.

As Ostry points out, the world economy is in a "period of transition," in which diminished American power must be shared cooperatively with Europe, Japan and others. The world has moved a long way from the time when America, as its clear leader, set up major international institutions to deal with America's vision of the problems of the 1950s.

Now the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) need dramatic revision in a global economy dominated by huge, interlocked financial flows that no one anticipated at the end of the war. Increasingly, global trade will be based on yen, German marks and other currencies, not just on the dollar. Japan, not the United States, is the world's leading creditor nation.

Moreover, China and Russia are making overtures to these institutions, posing further problems for top-level decision-making on the economic front.

The challenge, thus, is how to remake the economic summit into a force that can grapple with these difficult problems, and supply the necessary momentum for change that can only come from presidents and prime ministers.

A 1984 report by the Twentieth Century Fund (issued after the Williamsburg summit of 1983) noted that, "Summits have been aptly and accurately described as media circuses." It's easy to blame this development on the media, instead of on policymakers, where most of the fault lies.

Presidents and prime ministers have tried to use economic summits to strengthen their political position at home. The 1976 summit in Puerto Rico was a vehicle devoted to President Ford's reelection effort. (It didn't work for him.) Twice now, Margaret Thatcher has manipulated the summit into a backdrop for her reelection successes.

Starting in Ottawa in 1981, says Prof. Howard Wachtel of American University, the Reagan administration showed an interest in the summits only to the extent that they contributed to the president's image. It swamped Ottawa with high-level briefings that left the other six begging for any crumb of attention. After Ottawa, everyone else went heavily into the PR business at summits. And at Venice, the others finally outgunned the United States despite the American effort to saturate television with self-serving propaganda.

As the Twentieth Century Fund report observed, the summits have been turned into "something of a horse race, with national 'winners' and 'losers' and 'also-rans.' " Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once grumbled that the only way to have a successful summit would be to gather the leaders on an island, and then cut all the lines of transportation and communication for the press.

What Schmidt refused to understand is that it is the leaders themselves that create the circus. Said the fund report: "We do not think that imposing a code of good conduct on the press is either warranted or advisable. We believe however that those involved in the summit "The summit process is worthwhile, and our economic world would be a riskier place without it."

-- Walter Heller

should not contribute or bolster the idea that the summit is a competitive race. If a code of good conduct is called for, it should be observed by the participants in the summit."

In substance and apart from PR, the Reagan approach to summits was sharply different from the four that Jimmy Carter was involved in from 1977 through 1980. The Democrats took the original "library approach" (intimate and informal) of Schmidt and French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1975 and transformed it into a plenary session with detailed advance work by the bureaucracies, aimed at reaching major bargains with the other powers.

They were able, at the Bonn summit of 1978 and Tokyo of 1979, to produce a concrete result. At Bonn, there was the now-famous "locomotive" decision under which Germany and Japan agreed to stimulate their economies in exchange for the decontrol of oil in the United States. In Tokyo the next year, after the second oil shock, there was a somewhat less successful effort to control energy supplies and to enforce conservation measures.

The recent Reagan summits, as former Treasury Undersecretary Anthony Solomon said in an interview, have settled for nonspecific understandings that represent more subtle influences.

But Henry Owen, Jimmy Carter's "sherpa," points out that the basic reason for the failure in Venice was Reagan's inability to put on the table a credible solution to the budget problem that might have induced a 1978-like deal with Japan and West Germany to expand their economies.

"Occasions for a trade don't arise every year," said Owen, "but this year was such an occasion, and our partners beat on us to make an offer. Perhaps we could have struck a bargain. But we never found out if Germany and Japan would have put up something more {to expand their economies}, because we never made an offer {on budget reduction.}" In the face of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's absolute declarations against a revival of the locomotive theory, even an aggressive American effort might not have paid off. But Owen is right that Reagan didn't even try.

It surely isn't practical to go back to the philosophy of the original summit at Rambouillet -- where all six heads of state (Canada wasn't yet in the club) stayed in Giscard's summer residence, a luxurious hunting lodge, and advisers such as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Economic Council Chairman Alan Greenspan were helicoptered in and out.

But as Solomon suggests, the heads of government could at least put aside the political posturing and the hype. And even if political and strategic affairs can not (and should not) be totally divorced from economics, the main focus ought to be brought back to economics, with the other issues left for the most part to discussions within strategic alliances.

The economic summit process will never be perfect, but it's better than nothing. In his final commentary on economic issues, Walter Heller put it this way June 9 for the PBS Nightly Business Report:

"The {Venice} economic summit may not be all that economic and may not launch any bold initiatives. But the summit process is worthwhile, and our economic world would be a riskier place without it."