TRUE TO ITS promise, the Carter administration is starting out like a house afire on human rights abroad. On Wednesday the State Department scored Czechoslovakia, and on Thursday Russia, for the latest actions of each against peaceable and legal dissent. It has got to be deeply satisfying to many Americans to see their government thus openly projecting some of its fundamental values into its foreign policy. Everyone understands, too, that the seeming indifference of the last administration to such values contributed to the decline of confidence in its foreign policy and, eventually, to its loss at the polls.

But more is involved than the satisfaction of Americans' moral impulses. In the immediate Soviet-bloc context, the quality of people's lives is at stake. Will the expression of American concern lead the Czech and Soviet regimes to relax or tighten their grip on dissenters? Will such expressions make Moscow, in particular, more or less willing to deal with the United States on, say, arms control? After all, the most conspicuous example of human rights pressure in recent years, the tying of trade to Soviet emigration policy, hurt emigration and trade alike. The political chemistry of closed societies is remote from that familiar to Westerners.

Further, the Third World countries for whose poverty Mr. Carter has shown special sympathy are commonly rights - at least, for political rights. Efforts to use the denial of economic aid (or arms) to press recipients toward more humane practices may backfire against the intended beneficiaries, or produce a political reaction unacceptable to the United States, or lead to depriving needy people of aid (or security) on account of governmental practices over which they have no control.

President Carter was only reflecting the difficulties inherent in translating concern into results, it seems to us, in his inaugural address. He asserted the importance of the human rights issue but at the sam time he generalized that "even our great nation has its recognized limits" and observed that the "best way" to advance freedom elsewhere is to show ourselves worthy of emulation.

Of the various guides his administration will have through this minefield, few come better equipped than Marshall Shulman of Columbia University, a Soviet expert who will be advising the Secretary of State. Professor Shulman recently wrote an article for Foreign Affairs entitled "On Learning to Live with Authoritarian Regimes." Its theme is the need to give priority, especially in Soviet-American relations, to the regulation of military and political competition: "There will be no opportunity to work for the strengthening of democratic values if this effort is not successful." Meanwhile, the United States should consider a broad range of means - including example, dialogue, indirection, time and evolution - to strengthen the prospects around the world for wider acceptance and adoption of American values with respect to human rights. This requires taking a larger and longer view than some Americans, eager for quick results, would prefer. We doubt, however, that there is a surer way.