Events have dealt a new African policy into the lap of the Carter administration. It is a policy of deferring to other countries to resist the thrust of Russia and Cuba in the Dark Continent. But to exploit these possibilities the administration will first have to renounce the highly rhetorical African policy associated with Ambassador Andrew Young.

The starting point for analysis is the rough division of African states into militants and moderates. The militant states tend to be those that had a difficult time in emerging from the colonial regime. They look toward Russia and her allies (including Cuba) for material and military support.

They favor the Marxist approach as a legitimization of one-party rule, if not as a strategy for economic development. They call harshly for revision of the trading and lending patterns of the international economic system now dominated by the industrial contries. Salient examples include Algeria, Guinea, Angola, Mozambique and Somalia. The Ethiopian military who took over from Emperior Haile Selassie are rapidly heading into the militant camp.

The moderate African states had an easier time in securing independence. They maintain fairly good relations with the ex-colonial powers, and are rather less quick to attack the world economic system.

While not exactly democratic in internal structure, they tend to be anti-Marxist. Among the best known examples of moderate African states are Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Tanzania, Morocco, Senegal and Zaire.

One foreign-policy issue draws all these African states together. They unanimously oppose continued rule by white minorities in Rhodesia and the Republic of South Africa for an indefinite time.

Otherwise, however, the African states are at sixes and sevens, even on African questions! Morocco and Algeria have a hot territorial dispute over what used to be Spanish Sahara, and the fight is embittered by ideological differences. Zaire and Angola have ideological and territorial differences that come to a head in Zaire's copper belt, the province now called Shaba. Ethiopia and Somalia are at daggers over the secessionist Ethiopian province of Eritrea.

When Carter first became a national political figure, even in the early days of his administration, the salient African issues beat around Rhodesia and South Africa. With Young as a tribune, Carter enunciated an African policy that stressed opposition to white minority rule and a willingness to consider demands by the militants for shifts in the international economic structure. That administration, and it earned Carter much better relations with at least one key African country - Nigeria.

But the rhetorical policy did not help when Ethiopia began pressuring American officials in a move that culminated last week in the closing of U.S. military, consular and cultural installations. Neiter did the rhetorical policy serve when conflict between Zaire and Angola broke out anew in central Africa.

The conflict picked up when mercenaries supported by Angola, apparently with some help from the 20,000 Cuban troops stationed there, invaded Zaire. For a fortnight the invasion moved along relatively well. The Carter administration had no plicy for blocking this thrust, except sending a couple planeloads of nonlethal supplies to Zaire.

At that point, one of the moderate African states, Morocco, and an ex-colonial power, France, stepped into the breach. French planes ferried some 1,500 Moroccan troops to Zaire. The troops entered the battle zone and seem to be holding the line against the invasion.

President Valery Giscard d'Estaing of France and King Hassan II of Morocco both have important domestic reasons for helping Zaire. They need to show that they are leaders capable of resisting pressure from the militants.

But both leaders are vulnerable. King Hassan can easily be undermined by the Algerians. President Giscard d'Estaing is in a poor position to resist pressure from Russia. So both are looking to Washington for a blessing - presumably at the summit meeting of the seven leading industrial powers in London on May 7 and 8.

The action of the French and Moroccans has helped America with a minimum commitment from this country. So the Carter administration ought to flash its approval. The question is whether the administration, having started with such a high African profile, can now allow other countries to take the lead - especially countries out of favor with the African militants.