THIS YEAR the meeting of the seven made a real difference. In the past, the heads of the big industrial democracies have often limited themselves at these annual gatherings to ratifying agreements worked out in advance by their subordinates. Particularly during the Reagan years, the agendas generally excluded anything that might lead to discord. As the Houston meeting ended there was a lot of clucking and flapping over the list of differences that weren't settled. But that was because the seven had got down to serious business.

The Europeans were particularly astonished at the energy that President Bush devoted to the rules of agricultural trade. He had good reason. While all rich countries subsidize their agriculture too heavily, the Europeans generate huge surpluses, which they dump abroad. They drive down world prices, while protecting their own. Until now the Europeans have refused to negotiate seriously on dumping, and that refusal has endangered the whole process of reforming the world's rules of trade. There's a lot that the United States and the other rich countries want -- rules to protect patents, rules to permit more trade in services and much else. The developing countries are willing to talk about these things, but only if they get something out of the deal. What they want, above all else, are fair rules on agricultural trade.

But it goes beyond trade. Mr. Bush has been trying to nudge developing countries, particularly in Latin America, away from their protectionist traditions and toward market economics. American policy follows the principle that open economies mean open societies. Progress there has been jeopardized by the Europeans' refusal to move on agriculture. Mr. Bush has let them know that a failure of these negotiations would inevitably have political consequences.

He certainly didn't win any immediate concessions from them at Houston. But he got a firm promise that they will negotiate in good faith and, for the first time, in a framework that could produce agreement. Where there was deadlock, there is now movement.

Conversely, on environmental policy and the prospect of global warming, it was the United States that promised not to keep brushing off the Europeans. Their fears are well founded, and while there's still no trans-Atlantic consensus, a useful conversation seems to have begun.

The Houston meeting did exactly what it was intended to do. It forced the people at the top of these governments to deal, directly and personally, with their friends' concerns. Expanding trade has been a great engine of worldwide economic growth for the past four decades, and the revival of the trade talks is a particularly notable achievement.