WHAT, ME, drive a wedge between the United States and Europe? How "absurd," said Mikhail Gorbachev in Paris. "We are not pursuing a Metternich-like policy of 'balance of forces,' of setting one state against another, knocking together blocs and counterblocs, creating 'axes' and 'triangles,' but a policy of global d,etente. . . ." You could almost see him rolling his eyes.

The Soviet leader was playing hardball, showing not merely the now familiar personal adroitness but -- more important -- a command of the Soviet policy system sufficient to let him make, and make public, a major new set of initiatives. He has gone on the offensive in preparations for his summit with Ronald Reagan, with the advantages and risks that entails.

The core of Mr. Gorbachev's "no-wedge" approach was to offer France and Britain a "direct dialogue" -- a partial alternative to their traditional full deference to the United States as the security negotiator for the whole alliance. His logic was impeccable: the French and British nuclear forces, not previously the subject of East-West bargaining, are indeed "growing rapidly" and can hardly be discussed without French (and British) participation. Acting the good ally, French President Francois Mitterrand fended off the Gorbachev bid, but French public opinion and national pride may make the offer look better later if the November summit drags.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gorbachav offered a new twist on the missiles-in-Europe issue that has stirred up the alliance for a decade. He claimed Moscow had reduced to 243 (a figure near the level of existing French and British forces) the number of its SS20s "on standby alert in the European zone," and will dismantle the removed missiles' "stationary installations" in two months. Plainly, the offer was meant to calm Europe and prhaps also to head off the promised onset of Dutch deployment of American missiles on Nov. 1. For this Soviet "self-limitation," the Soviet leader went on, Europe is "entitled to expect" the Americans to freeze the deployments they began in Europe last year. The scheme would leave Moscow with a plain advantage in numbers, as Washington counts. But its promise of moving the issue off the board will no doubt give it some appeal.

Finally, Mr. Gorbachev unveiled details of the new Soviet Geneva offer to cut in half those weapons "capable of reaching the other's territory" -- a formulation not so incidentally giving the SS20s a free pass and moving the countering American missiles into the cuttable strategic category. One key provision would let Moscow retain all of the heavy multi-warhead missiles whose first-strike capability makes their diminution the administration's most urgent arms control goal. Still another would tie offensive cuts to the Soviet demand for a full ban, except presumably for research, on defensive arms. The 50 percent figure does address the Reagan demand for "deep cuts." But the fine print is what matters.