At a recent discussion of the practical nature of international economic coordination, Henry Owen -- who was President Carter's sherpa on economic summits -- complained that coordination hasn't produced happy results. "What governments usually mean by coordination is that they keep on doing what they're doing, while everybody else makes changes," Owen quipped.

His remark comes to mind with the receipt of a slim volume of essays published by Princeton University in honor of Henry C. Wallich, the distinguished economist who retired at the end of 1986 after serving 13 years as a governor of the Federal Reserve System.

In shaping their tribute to him, Wallich's colleagues focused on the current status of international economic cooperation, a subject close to Wallich during his long career at Yale University, as an editorial writer for this newspaper, as a Newsweek columnist, and at the Fed.

The essays could not be more timely: faith in international cooperation has been shaken in the fallout from the October stock market collapse. Economic policy makers in the major countries, looking first to their own national interests, unhesitatingly gave short shrift to their international commitments.

"In large part," observed former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone last month in Davos, Switzerland, "all of us placed too much stress on what other countries should be doing, rather than what they themselves should be doing."

The critical question, addressed in this tribute to Wallich, is how coordination or cooperation can be put on a sounder footing. First of all, as Wallich himself wrote in 1984, there are various degrees of cooperative efforts, too easily lumped together under a single heading.

"Coordination, harmonization, cooperation, consultation," Wallich said. "These, in descending order, are the terms by which nations recognize ... that they are not alone in this world ...

" 'Cooperation' falls well short of 'coordination,' a concept which implies a significant modification of national policies... . It falls short also of 'harmonization,' a polite term indicating a somewhat greater reluctance to limit one's freedom of action. But 'cooperation' is more than 'consultation.' "

Gottfried Haberler of the American Enterprise Institute, an old friend of Wallich's, comments that Wallich didn't rate any of the traditional institutional efforts to work jointly on economic problems any higher than 'cooperation.' According to Haberler, Wallich included in his downscale estimate the results of the economic summits and the regular affairs of the International Monetary Fund, the European Monetary System, and the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Haberler concludes from that that Wallich would be "rather skeptical" about the ambitious drive for policy coordination launched in 1985 by Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, and the others of the now-famous "Group of Seven" -- the same effort that Owen and Nakasone criticized.

It is true that just before the October crash, the United States and West Germany fought each other publicly, in less than diplomatic language, to change their policies -- and neither country would or could. The famous Louvre Accord lay dead in the water last fall. But Haberler's conclusion that the G-7 process should be scrapped, leaving basic decisions to market forces, is too simplistic.

More to the point is the statement by Ralph C. Bryant of Brookings Institution that while coordination of national economic policies may be difficult -- and even, possibly, not "feasible" -- it may nevertheless be necessary and desirable.

"Many critics ... imply that coordination {and cooperation} are symptoms for amity, harmony, or altruism," Bryant says. "But coordination merely implies self-interested mutual adjustment of behavior."

In the real world of today, there is no alternative to the pragmatic need outlined by Bryant. Baker is right to press on, as best he can, to revive and keep the G-7 process alive. Today, nations are interconnected by electronics and capital flows, by joint ventures and a single monetary system -- by their trade, investments and debts. We must adjust to one global economy.

Jesus Silva-Herzog, former Mexican minister of finance (and a student of Wallich's money and banking course at Yale 25 years ago), and other contributors to the Princeton essays cite various Wallich statements or testimony supporting international cooperation.

But I like best the following that I found in a speech Wallich made in Oslo, Norway, on May 9, 1985:

"Fundamentally, countries act in their own interest as they see it. The discussion here today has made clear once more than it is in the interest of all countries to cooperate ... The United States has a special interest that derives mainly from its large size. The influence of the American economy on the rest of the world is strong enough to generate a significant feedback on the United States itself. In its own self-interest, therefore, the United States should pay close attention to how it affects the state of the world, because that state will react back upon the United States."