IT ALMOST GOES without saying that the nation's capital and its residents have a special obligation to be hospitable to the hundreds of ambassadors, diplomats and employees of the more than 150 foreign governments and international organizations with offices here. These guests must have reasonably convenient places to live and to work. In their behalf, both the federal and local governments must take extra measures -- such as providing security on special occasions or minimizing red tape. But now and then, despite everyone's awareness of these obligations, the interests of the diplomatic community collide with the interests of local residents. And nowhere is the conflict more troublesome than in zoning -- deciding where to locate embassies (the official residences of ambassadors) and chanceries (the working offices of foreign governments).

It was one thing when there were only a few dozen countries in the world with envoys accredited to the U.S. government. But since World War II, the number of nations represented in Washington has almost doubled. All told, there are 132 countries with official offices-here -- and that doesn't count a flock of international agencies. As a result, there are now more than 17,500 foreign government employees, competing with private industry, local residents and the federal and local governments for living quarters and working space. And the foreign interests have powerful backing from the State Department, which argues that the way representatives from other countries are treated in this city greatly influences how our own representatives are treated abroad.

To try to relieve thesqueeze, the National Capital planning Commission, working with staff members of the State Department and the city's planning office, is proposing to allow chanceries, as distinct from embassies, which are under no specific zoning restraints, to locate in an expanded number of areas around town. Some of these areas include sites zoned for commercial activity as well as certain residential neighborhoods that have been off limits since 1964, under a law sponsored by former Sen. J. William Fulbright. The proposal is awaiting review by the D.C. Zoning Commission, which has already scheduled public hearings. Already the rumblings of assorted civic associations make it clear that the hearings are going to be lively.

Opposition centers on the question to allow chanceries and other international offices to move into residential neighborhoods. Understandably, neighbors object to the inevitable noise, traffic and other disruptions that would result. The diplomatic community's traditional disregard for parking and traffic regulations serves only to compound the problem. Many residents argue, therefore, that new chanceries and international offices should be located exclusively in commercial zones. Other residents are even considering legal action to stop foreign governments from locationg anywhere until the entire matter is resolved -- a process that could take several years.

Local residents have a point. Chanceries and international offices are better suited to commercial areas. There are a number of appropriate ones already identified in the proposal: Pennsylvania Avenue, for example, is an excellent -- and prestigious -- location for diplomatic work space. Ambassadors, their staffs and others in the foreign diplomatic community should live wherever they can find suitable accommodations. But the Zoning Commission should ask the State Department, the National Capital Planning Commission and the city's planning office to revise their proposal so that foreign-government office space would be confined largely to areas already zoned for commercial activity. To our way of thinking, that would meet the needs of all the residents of the city.