Government economists have seized on the estimate that the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 1.8 percent between July and September, like a Death Row prisoner hearing that the governor may be looking again at his case. It is not a question of breathing easier, but simply of breathing a little longer.

"This contradicts those who believe we are in a recession or about to enter one," a senior official at the Commerce Department said in announcing the growth-rate estimate. That may be so by statistical definitions. But the serious global challenges facing the American economy are not of a statistical nature. They demand imagination and attention, two commodities that appear to be in short supply in official Washington and other Western capitals at the moment for anything other than the Persian Gulf crisis.

As the Gulf crisis comes to a head in the next few months, the Bush administration must also keep its nerves steady and vision clear on the international economic front. The economic arrangements needed to underpin the new international political order must also be given form and content. Otherwise, global interdependence is likely to become a missed opportunity rather than a functioning reality.

The possibility that the GATT Uruguay Round negotiations on multilateral trade will break up in December without agreement is the most threatening cloud on the horizon. The once promising effort to cut a firebreak against protectionism appears to be failing for narrow political reasons. The new rules of the game that are needed to reflect the rapidly changing realities of world trade are now in doubt.

It is easy to overstate the dangers of not reaching a new global agreement on trade tariffs and preferences. American children will not go hungry on Jan. 1, 1991, if the negotiating deadline is missed. The world's financial and trade system would survive a failure of the Uruguay Round.

But the sense of trust and cooperation built up by the system of multilateral coordination among the world's industrial democracies would not. The credibility of Japanese, North Americans and Europeans who have championed cooperation on monetary and trade affairs -- the internationalists -- would drop sharply at home, while those who can profit politically and economically from encouraging protectionism -- the insulators -- would gain the upper hand.

"Multilateral negotiations almost never 'fail'; they get moved forward until some measure of agreement can be reached," says D. H. Burney, who holds the unusual double assignment of being Canada's ambassador to Washington and the Canadian "Sherpa," or agenda drafter, for the annual Group of Seven summit. "But then you reach agreement on the minimalist rather than the maximalist side. That is the risk today."

Summitry has not helped thus far. President Bush failed to deliver on his pledge to use the G-7 summit in Houston last July to move the Uruguay Round along. Since then, the minds of the president and the president's men have been elsewhere.

And on Oct. 27, the 11 other nations of the European Community rejected Britain's suggestion to put the EC's agricultural subsidies on the agenda of their Rome summit. This was an act of defiance to the Bush administration, which says reform of the costly system of global agricultural subsidies is a condition for a new GATT agreement.

The EC refusal bore the mark of a deal cut between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who wants to push any discussion of agricultural subsidies beyond his Dec. 2 national elections, and the summit host, Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. He got surprisingly strong support from Kohl on the issue he most cared about, monetary union.

Kohl may wheel around once the farmers of Bavaria have voted for him and clear the way for a deal on agriculture in GATT. Murmurs out of Bonn to American officials suggest this as a likelihood. But such brinksmanship would only underline the strains that the new Europeans are prepared to put on the world trading system to protect their own narrow interests.

It would also underline the way in which the world's major trading nations are ready -- and able -- to pursue separate paths today.

While the United States teeters on the brink of recession, brandishing any reprieve, Japan and Germany look forward to real growth of 4 percent or higher this year.

The American locomotive no longer sets the pace for the world's train of trade. We may be entering what one British newspaperman calls an English language recession, in which the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia experience negative growth while Japan and Germany continue to expand their economies. This imbalance, if prolonged, would rewrite the world's trade and financial rules to America's disadvantage.

Despite expectations, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait have made political-military issues dominant over economic issues in Washington since Vice President Bush became President Bush. The U.S. budget fiasco showed on a national scale the cost of neglecting longer-term economic problems until the last possible minute. A repeat fiasco -- on a global scale, with the G-7 nations going to the brink -- must be avoided.