If a visitor to this city ever doubts Geneva is devoted to coddling the moneyed and powerful from around the world, a cab ride dispels the thought, for here the taxis are Mercedes-Benzes that accept American Express and Visa.

What better city to play host to two world leaders, 1,500 Swiss police, 2,000 Swiss soldiers, uncounted American and Soviet security forces, 3,000 members of the media and assorted summit hangers-on? When Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev begin their two-day summit Tuesday, this international city of meticulously polished surfaces and flawlessly constructed workings, of gracious hotels and round-the-clock translators, will respond as it always does under pressure. Discreetly. Securely. Perfectly.

"My proverb is, there are no problems in Geneva, only solutions," says Robert Vieux, chief of protocol and information for the canton of Geneva, one of Switzerland's 23 sovereign states.

It is a sentiment that springs both from the city's nature and its means of survival. For more than a hundred years, neutral, civilized Geneva in neutral, civilized Switzerland has been the world's favorite site for studying global problems and resolving international difficulties.

Ever since 1863, when Genevan Henri Dunant founded the International Red Cross, Geneva has been home to worldwide organizations. More than 200 of them now have their European headquarters here, and there are 30,000 conference sessions held every year.

The city gave its name to the series of Geneva conventions on the wartime treatment of soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians. After World War I, Calvinist Woodrow Wilson insisted the foundling League of Nations be headquartered here, in the city where the 16th-century Protestant reformer John Calvin lived and preached. When the U.N. designated Geneva its European headquarters, it moved into the defunct League's former building. Over the years, Geneva has seen summits on Indochina, Berlin, Algeria and Laos as well as the "Big Four" meeting between the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union in 1955. In addition, OPEC meets here several times a year just to keep the place in shape.

And then there are the businesses with headquarters in the banking center here, Switzerland's second largest after Zurich, and the fact that the security-conscious city can put the most nervous millionaire at ease. So many foreigners, from U.N. employes to Italian and Spanish laborers to refugees from Zaire, have settled here that one-third of the 350,000-strong population is now non-Swiss. Another third is non-Geneva-born Swiss, an important distincton in a city that treasures its sense of independence within Switzerland and that only joined Switzerland in 1815, the last territory to become part of the Swiss Confederation.

The modern city of Geneva, across the Rhone from the winding streets of the Old City, is molded to the tastes of those foreigners who can afford the high rents (which some say are approaching New York's) and pricey cab rides.

"Nothing is left to chance," according to a British woman who has lived in Geneva for 14 years.

One Strategic Defense Initiative expert in Geneva for the summit was most struck by the profusion of electric eyes and automatic doors, including revolving ones that spin before the hand is even close. "It's like living on the set of 'Star Trek,' " says John Pike, associate director for space policy for the Federation of American Scientists. Other visitors are intrigued by the hotel urinals, also designed for ease, that start flushing as the user approaches.

The money that makes all this possible is evident everywhere. Walk along the Quai des Bergues, a wide street bordered by the swan-studded Rhone on one side and a parade of elegant hotels on the other, and it is all Tissot, Audemars Piguet and Baume & Mercier -- enough diamond-studded watches in shop windows to cover the wrists of a small, jewel-obsessed nation.

Of course, clocks are omnipresent. In the 16th century, a wave of Protestants fleeing persecution in France descended on Geneva and contributed French-honed talents as jewelers and watchmakers to the city. There is a watch museum here, and one of the public parks is decorated with a large clock of flowers that, needless to say, keeps perfect time. And in case anyone gets nervous, the Hotel du Rhone offers written reassurance to its guests that the clocks on every floor are linked to the Neucha tel Chronometric Observatory and are exact to the tenth of a second.

The public telephones offer a further reminder of those two basic elements of Genevan life, time and money. Once the phone is answered, a dial begins to flip loudly, inexorably marking the disappearing centimes. 50 centimes. Tick. Tick. 30 centimes. Tick. Tick. The importance of making every word count takes on new meaning.

In a city so concerned with time, summits present some sources of trauma to the local populace.

"It affects their traffic," says protocol chief Vieux. "Of course, some don't like it. They're screaming everywhere, but I do feel they are really concerned and there is a certain sense of pride that for a few days at least we are the navel of the world."

Such protestations of civic pride are a government official's duty and Vieux (who manages to compliment every person he meets or runs into almost as quickly as he offers his hand) performs it deftly. Outsiders, however, would be well warned not to take the disruption of Genevan traffic too lightly. It is a very serious topic of conversation here.

Ask Herbert Schotte, manager of the Intercontinental Hotel, where the White House has commandeered all 400 rooms for the duration. A German who has lived in London, Paris, Rome and Madrid, Schotte describes Geneva's joys in terms of travel and speed.

"When I came here," he says, "I soon found out this city has a bit of everything, all the things I enjoyed in all the other cities, but nothing was so big. It is one hour to anywhere in Europe. And," he adds with an absolutely straight face, "we all know time is money."

The city is constantly inundated with conventions and more than 2 million tourists come here each year, but in some respects the activities surrounding Geneva's first bilateral U.S.-Soviet meeting go against the city's nature.

"You have always people saying, 'Why are they not doing the summit more discreetly, in a village without the 3,000 soldiers?' " says Drago Arsenijevic, chief of Genevan news for the daily Tribune de Gene ve. "If someone important is going through and you lose five minutes . . . " He shakes his head, a Genevan who knows what life is like beyond Lake Geneva. "In Paris, you lose two hours. Of course, if your main concern is traffic, you imagine this is a happy people. If they were starving, the traffic would not be the number one concern."

But this is a city with work to do.

"I would say it's quite a serious city," says Paul Widmer, press attache' at the Swiss Embassy in Washington. The seriousness, which has kept Geneva from developing much of a night life and which leads some to call it boring, is only to be expected in a city with such a strong Calvinist heritage. Geneva may make fancy watches, but frivolity and ostentation are not looked upon favorably.

Over the past several decades, the city has been associated in some people's minds with what one native calls "easy money." The economy flourished, land values soared under the pressure of foreign residents and e'migre's, and sudden wealth was not an uncommon phenomenon. Whether it was something Genevans admired is another question.

"In America, people respond to people who are successful very quickly," says Geneva-born historian Eric Golay, a doctoral student and teacher at the University of Geneva, "but in Switzerland I should say the sense of community goes before that, especially in the middle and lower classes. They would prefer the people keeping more quiet and more respectable and getting less money."

The sense of communal responsibility in this country is so great that daily newspapers are neatly folded and placed in open boxes on street corners. Buyers are trusted to deposit their one Swiss franc before taking the paper. And it works.

In fact, such a plebeian object as the newspaper box helps explain why Reagan, Gorbachev and thousands of others come here. The place works, and Genevans survive economically by making sure it does so smoothly.

"The Genevans are the minority," says the Intercontinental's Schotte of the natives' relationship to the visitors. "That's a fact they understand. The Genevan economy lives off this."

It lives off clearing out a fully booked hotel when the White House calls, as Schotte did at the Intercontinental when approached by the White House four months ago (one convention already booked was relocated to Paris, with the hotel picking up the cost to reprint the programs).

It lives by possessing 11,000 hotel beds (at $100 a night and up) and endless telex lines. By importing extra police from around Switzerland for the summit and teaching the German-speaking ones to shout "Halt, or I'll shoot!" in French.

And by soothing the ruffled feathers of superpowers.

"We are always trying to keep somewhere in between the Americans and the Soviets," says protocol chief Vieux. "Whether it is a press problem, a room problem, we have to try to offer everyone the same thing."

Genevans have been smoothing feathers for centuries. A small city-state surrounded by aggressive neighbors, Geneva in the 16th century knew it could not afford to provoke anyone, and found that neutrality was economically beneficial as well -- if you're friends with everyone, you can trade with everyone. When the University of Geneva's Golay compares diplomatic and governmental papers from the 18th century and the 1940s, he finds the same expressions of neutrality, of restraint and caution lasting for 200 years.

"It's striking to see exactly the same kind of attitude," he says. "Just to be careful, not to have too much political feelings about things, to be forgotten by other people, not to give an opinion. It's a very old policy of safety."

After Genevans soothe all the superpowers, pamper all the businessmen, host all the conferences, they go home. The locals rarely mix with the international contingent. Foreign workers at the United Nations pay no tax; foreign businessmen can afford to pay a lot for housing, driving the market up beyond the grasp of locals; foreign laborers are seen as stealing jobs at a time when the economy is doing less well than before.

Animosity toward outsiders has grown over the years, and last month a right-wing party called Vigilance ran on an antiforeigner platform and did surprisingly well in local parliamentary elections. But even if there were no concrete complaints against Genevans-come-lately, there would still be a gap between those who were born here and those who merely live here.

"The Swiss are very quiet, very private people," says Maureen Davies, a British therapist who has lived in the city for 21 years. "It's very hard to break in."

Which may be disheartening for the recent arrival looking for new friends, but only adds to the attraction of the city as an international center for political and business negotiations.

No one, after all, wants a chatty banker.