The conspiracy theory of politics, which we often use to explain the Kremlin's actions, is also used by the Kremlin in its efforts to understand the workings of Washington. The Soviet view of President Carter's announcement that he is deferring the decision on the production of the neutron warhead may be a case in point.

The decision was forced on Carter by a press leak that announced to the world that he wanted to cancel altogether the plan to produce the warhead, and that a major struggle was going on within the administration to make him change his mind. The press leak brought the debate out into the open, and that lead to so much public pressure on Carter that he had to give way to those who opposed cancellation. By deferring the decision on production, instead of canceling it, he has pleased virtually nobody - and least of all the Kremlin, which sees it as a clever device to foil its own campaign against the neutron warhead.

One of the main reasons for Carter's decision, according to the Soviet press, is that he wanted to win over public opinion to the idea of deploying the weapon in Western Europe, and to counter "the mighty wave of protests" against it that was sweeping the world. In other words, Moscow does not really accept the view that Carter was genuinely troubled by the issue and that he had inclined toward cancellation. "As is well known," a Soviet journal remarked recently, "the administration itself has organized the leaking of secret information . . . which was then used by the hawks in Congress" to attack the White House. "Certain officials in Washington are by no means discouraged by the attacks . . . but, on the contrary, regard them as useful."

That was said by the Soviet foreign-affairs journal Za Rubezhom about the administration's supposed tactics on SALT, but it analysis was not confined to that issue. There was "much evidence" and "many instances" that showed that the administration, in pursuing a position of strength in relation to the Soviet Union, was trying "to make use of the hawks' attacks on itself as a lever to put pressure on the Soviet side in the talks."

Now comes the neutron announcement, and the Soviet complaint that Carter had "linked" the decision on future production with a call for Soviet concessions. Those in the Kremlin who favor the conspiracy theory would therefore assume that, in keeping with the formula described in Za Rubezhom, the original leak was a deliberate administration ploy.

There are others who share that view. Some European diplomats in Washington believe that Carter was so angered by the West German refusal to endorse the plan to produce the neutron warhead that he decided to teach Chancellor Helmut Schmidt a lesson. Schmidt believed that the neutron warhead was necessary for the defense of Western Europe in that it would be a most effective weapon against a massed Soviet tank attack. He also believed that if NATO was to forego the use of the neutron weapon, the Soviet Union should at least make some comparable concessions. But he felt that for domestic political reasons he could not afford to come out publicly with the endorsement of the neutron plan, which President Carter had required from NATO before he was prepared to go ahead with it himself.

Therefore, the report in the press that Carter was now favoring cancellation of the production plan put Schmidt on the spot. He now knows that the "decision to defer the decision" may go either way. Either he will give Carter the support the president wants, in which case the production plan may well go ahead, or he will with hold such support, in which case the production plan may indeed be canceled.

What is more, NATO as a whole, not just Schmidt, will have learned that the United States is no longer prepared to bear the brunt - and the odium - of making the difficult decisions that the European leaders may privately favor, but cannot publicly support for their own internal political reasons.

Those European officials who suspect some such reasoning lies behind the Carter decision and the way the administration debate on it was leaked to the press are as wrong as those Moscow officials who are using the conspiracy theory to explain what happened in Washington. There was a conspiracy, but it was not the one they suspect. The information about Carter's intention to cancel the production of the neutron warhead came from those who wanted to make sure that, by deferring the decision, he would at least give them another chance to press for going ahead with production.

They have won that chance - which means that Moscow will have to consider seriously whether it ought to make the concessions requested by Carter, while NATO will have to consider more seriously Carter's future requests for political support. The popular image of the decision-making process that led to Carter's neutron announcement may be one of vacillation and uncertainty in the White House, and it will take the administration some time to live it down. But the long-term result may be to put the administration in a stronger position, in relation both to Moscow and to its allies.