The primacy of inflation - and its deadening effect on leadership - emerged with striking clarity from the summit meeting of the NATO countries. At one time or another the four outstanding leaders of the present time were in town.

Two of the four have thrived politically - but by concentrating narrowly on the fight against inflation. The other two have sought wider perspectives - and suffered accordingly.

The four I have in mind are Helmut Schmidt, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jimmy Carter. They represent a new breed, set markedly apart from the men who for so long dominated the postwar scene.

All four are intelligent, energetic and attractive. All advanced rapidly, and far more under their own steam than as party men. Not one had anything serious to do with the last big war. Nor with the ideological passions generated either by the Depression or the Cold War. Their great problem has been to meet the difficult circumstances that have marked politics in the West since the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 and the oil boycott and recession-cum-inflation that followed.

In West Germany, Chancellor Schmidt divorced himself from the soaring visions of former chancellor Willy Brandt. He put behind him the ideas of normalizing relations with the East Ostpolitik and cultivating a dialogue with the underdeveloped world.

Instead, he concentrated on the domestic economy and, within that area, on the fight against inflation. He squeezed on budgetary outlays and money supply to the point where inflation dropped below 3 percent, unemployment went over a million, and economic growth - in the past quarter, anyway - actually fell. The results were bad for all European countries that depend heavily on selling to Germany. Because the German mark appreciated, nations that bought from Germany - notably the United States - suffered further inflation. But the Germans were satisfied, and Schmidt is probably the strongest leader anywhere in the world today.

In France, President Giscard lowered the high international profile of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Far from trying to play arbiter between East and West, he centered his foreign-policy efforts on the single relatively manageable area - French Africa.

Relief from foreign commitments made possible concentration on the domestic economy. Like his friend Schmidt, Giscard d'Estaing avoided economic stimulus and talked of "austerity." He held the line on inflation and allowed unemployment to climb. That policy paid off handsomely in the polls last March. With the communists and socialists split on the left, and the Gaulists divided on the right, Giscard has been able to form his own political party of the center. He is securely in power until 1981 and probably for another seven years as president after that.

In Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau hitched his star to an idealistic formula for settling the country's agonizing French-English problem. His idea was to push bilingualism throughout the country. But the French in Quebec did not share his passion for English, and the English in the western provinces balked at having to do everything in French. The solution now shaping up is one that pushes the problem, and Trudeau, aside - a looser federation with more free choice on cultural matters in all provinces.

Trudeau aimed equally high in economic matters. He sought to hold down inflation through controls on wages and prices. But the result has been growth so slow and inflation so high that the Canadian leader has felt obliged to push off the election that virtually everybody thought he would feel strong enough to call this spring.

As to President Carter, he shot for the moon on everything at first. He wanted the best in economic growth, arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, energy, water projects and a lot of other things. He has had to retreat all the way down the line, and is now struggling to overcome the impression that he is weak and indecisive.

Events, and a few aides, are now pushing the president to emulate Schmidt and Giscard and to come out as, above all things, an inflation fighter. Perhaps that tough stance would reverse his poor showing in the polls. But it would also confirm the impression that the spirit of an age dominated by inflation works to erode inspiration and thus prepares a leadership void.