"I DON'T SEE MUCH," Gerald Ford said the other day of the trip Jimmy Carter is now beginning in Poland; the President will go on to Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, France and to NATO and Common Market headquarters in Belgium. In a sense, Mr. Ford was right. Measured in terms of significant agreements to be signed or seething disputes to be negotiated, towering personalities to be encountered or exotic backdrops to be photographed against, there isn't much. If Jimmy Carter were not so much the servant of the work ethic, he might be travelling for his own education and enjoyment.

But no President can be just a tourist. Presidential travel is a semaphor, as bright and pulsing as modern communications can make it, signaling the nation's, or at least the President's, international concerns. In these terms, this trip - plus a complementary journey to be taken next March - tells a good deal about the shape of the world as perceived by Jimmy Carter as his shakedown year in the White House ends.

Mr. Carter applied one standard on television Wednesday. "Energy will be the tie that will bind us together on this trip," he said, referring to the oil-exporting states of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the United States' energy-importing allies in Europe, and perhaps to India as one of the hundred already-struggling nations rendered even more desperate by the oil-price increases of 1973-74. One could wish, as he discusses this issue, that the Congress had suitably armed him by passing a comprehensive energy program. But he will be able to help out his program by informing Americans of the dismay that oil exporters and fellow importers feel, for different reasons, over the United States' failure to curb its energy consumption and increase its domestic supplies.

There is, too, a long-term mission, one made explicit by White House adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. It is to accommodate American policy to changes in global circumstances - the proliferation of nations and populations and of demands for political rights and economic resources - even while maintaining continuity in American values. To the familiar and still-necessary involvement in the tie between East and West must be added a deepening concern for the tie between North and South. Mr. Carter's visits to France, Belgium and Poland illustrate the first purpose; the stops in Iran, India and Saudia Arabia, and later in Nigeria, Brazil and Venezuela, the second.

It was in 1963, in the context of the more palpable East-West tensions of that day, that President Kennedy issued his memorable appeal to "make the world safe for diversity." Much of the United States' trouble in the intervening years may be traced to a failure to heed the spirit of those words. On the eve of President Carter's departure, Mr. Brzezinski echoed the Kennedy theme, evoking "a wider foreign responsive to global diversity." If the rhetoric is a bit more professorial, the thrust is no less profound. It is to define this diversity, and to bring the American public to better understand it, that Jimmy Carter is now abroad.