The trick in the coming days will be to neither overestimate nor underestimate the importance of the INF treaty -- its benefits and dangers. It will not be easy.

Mikhail Gorbachev's presence, the summit and the signing ceremony offer a nearly irresistible temptation to the media and everyone else to treat the completion of the treaty as an event of colossal importance for U.S.-Soviet relations, the arms race and the world balance of power.

Surrounded by celebration, claims and counterclaims, it will be difficult to remember that the INF treaty deals with only one type of nuclear weapon, a type moreover that is not deployed against the United States. It will be difficult to remember that it does not denuclearize the European theater, nor have any significant impact on the overall balance of military forces in that arena.

What, then, does it do? Removal of U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range missiles will leave Western Europe marginally more vulnerable, the Soviet Union marginally less vulnerable and the NATO alliance marginally weaker.

When Soviet missiles have been removed, Western European cities will no longer be vulnerable to destruction by the Soviet Union in a matter of minutes. But they will still be utterly vulnerable to the Soviets' overwhelming superiority of conventional forces. On the other hand, when the United States removes its Pershing and cruise missiles from Europe, Soviet cities will no longer be vulnerable to any threat from Europe.

Although the treaty seems like a very good trade -- weapon for weapon -- it leaves Western Europe with fewer options for self-defense and the Soviet Union with less to defend against.

In any case, weapons are only one aspect of a nation's power, as Clausewitz, Sun Tsu, Lenin, Mao and other supreme tacticians of power have understood. The strength of nations depends also on their will and skill, on their purpose and clarity. The strength of an alliance depends on the commitment and unity of its members.

NATO is a defensive alliance among democracies. A defensive alliance makes sense only if there is a meaningful threat, and can only be sustained if that threat is widely perceived. More and more, sophisticated Western Europeans already doubt the reality of the Soviet threat and the reliability of the American commitment to Europe's defense. The INF treaty reinforces both these tendencies.

Removal of the Soviet SS-20 missiles would eliminate the most dramatic symbol of a direct threat to Europe, and therefore would also eliminate a powerful incentive for European commitment to NATO.

The manner in which the United States has conducted its arms negotiations has further disturbed the structure of confidence on which the alliance rests. Europeans are still shocked by Reykjavik. They find it difficult to believe that top U.S. officials would hold those freewheeling discussions with the Soviet leader without any prior allied consultation. And although U.S. officials deny it, there is a widespread feeling in Europe that subsequent to Reykjavik the United States has not consulted early enough, often enough or at high enough levels with the European allies on matters of direct immediate relevance to European security.

It does not follow from the above that the INF treaty should be rejected by the Senate. The damage to allied relations has already been done. Public political adaptations have been made -- in West Germany, Britain, Italy and elsewhere. Indeed, a U.S. refusal of the treaty now would be taken as more evidence of disarray in the American government and would leave many Europeans feeling that it was America's fault that Soviet missiles remained targeted on their countries.

However, our government is already far along in conversations toward yet another arms agreement. Surely it can consult first with our European allies in the process of these new negotiations. We cannot solve the treaty's problems by rejecting it at this stage. But we can seek to minimize its damage.

Like the damage, the benefits of the treaty are also largely political. Its completion constitutes a precedent for cooperation and creates a more constructive climate for U.S.-Soviet relations. This may be useful in the future, especially if we can learn from this experience.

Like all other weapons agreements, its value depends entirely on mutual compliance with its terms. So far, the great difficulty about U.S.-Soviet arms agreements has not been in negotiating their terms, nor even the terms of verification, but in securing compliance. From Yalta forward through Kennedy-Khrushchev, SALTs I and II, the ABM treaty and so forth, compliance has been the problem.

This and all future U.S. agreements with the Soviet Union should provide for monitoring compliance and automatically terminating the pact in the case of noncompliance. No such provision is included in the current treaty. Perhaps the Senate can take care of this oversight.