THE COMMERCE Department's ruling on steel imports is a poor answer to a question that may not have any very good answers. The steel industry is grossly overbuilt worldwide, and nearly everywhere governments have desperately resorted to one kind of aid or another to mitigate the decline in employment in the mills. The Commerce Department has now held that nine countries, most of them in Western Europe, have been illegally subsidizing their exports of steel into this country.

But the definition of a subsidy is not so precise as it might seem at first glance. The Europeans are now breathing heavily about retaliation and, in a flow of some $50 billion a year of American exports into the Common Market, it would be surprising if they could not find targets of opportunity. The French, for example, have charged that American price controls on natural gas constitute an illegal subsidy of the synthetic fibers made from that gas.

The administration has been forced into this action by American steel companies complaining of unfair competition. The steel companies are not primarily interested, of course, in merely prohibiting subsidies. They are much more anxious to secure, by whatever device, a substantial and permanent reduction in imports. Importers will now be required to post bonds covering the amount of the subsidies. Perhaps the importers will react by dropping their highly subsidized suppliers in Britain, France and Belgium, and turning instead to mills in Germany that the Commerce Department has now held to be unsubsidized. If that happens, the American government will merely have invited trouble for American exporters without obtaining for the American steel industry the relief that it demands. Alternatively, perhaps importers here will decide that foreign steel from any source has become, for the present, unacceptably dangerous. In that case, the country will shortly see the usual consequence of protectionism. The American steel makers, relieved of foreign competition, will raise their prices and undo some of the recent progress in reducing the inflation rate. In either event, it is not a very happy prospect.

The best hope is, as always, negotiation instead of the present litigation. The steel industry doesn't like the idea, because the American negotiators will always have to weigh its interests against those of the more competitive American industries that export. But the slow, tedious, undramatic process of trade negotiation serves the national interest best. Unfortunately, it's very hard to pursue in the midst of a recession and high unemployment.