THE NATO SUMMIT talked over Africa and warned Moscow not to exploit "situations of instability and regional conflict in the developing world." That's not so much a policy as an attitude, and a tentative attitude at that. It suggest that as a group the allies are concerned about the specter of resource-rich Africa tipping into greater instability, and about the spectacle of Russians and Cubans intervening in successive crises - but that they are chary of confrontations and quick fixes and want to proceed at a measured pace. Such caution is probably well advised. Certainly it's not surprising. NATO has always had trouble formulating common policy toward regions outside Europe. The alliance had not systematically deliberated on Africa before the United States brought the subject front and center at the summit. It is enough for now, we suggest, that NATO should be seized of the problem.

That's not to say that interested parts of the West should wait to act interested parts of the West should wait to act in Africa until all parts agree. The Zaire incident, involving communist sponsorship of troops violating an international frontier, demolished the earlier argument that Russia and China were helping only those governments that had asked for help on their own soil. That local soldiers had previously crossed the Angola-Zaire border in both directions does not alter the fact that this time the attackers had a degree of foreign support making their raid extremely destructive and destabilizing. It is only prudent of Zaire and like moderate states of modest military means to be considering now creation of a pan-African armed force, a kind of fire brigade, to calm nerves and deter future incidents. The United States and France might provide logistical support. The problems of a pan-African force are formidable, and it is worth thrashing them out.

In some quarters there is apprehension that the West will frantically throw itself into an anti-communist crusade in Africa to detriment of all other considerations. Rather in this spirit, the NATO summit communique warned that "these situations should not be viewed exclusively in an East-West context." Frankly, we find the caution gratuitous, particularly as it is meant to apply to the United States. Does anyone really doubt this administration's devotion to a broad-gauged Africa policy based on conciliation of disputes and advancement of development? Some administration members, among others, show signs of having lost confidence in this intent. But from Andrew Young's empathy for Africa, to Cyrus Vance's earnest regard, to the weight Zbigniew Brzezinski attaches to "North-South" relations, to the president's own personal commitment, this administration should be doubted - least of all by itself.

To identify the different officials contributing to Africa policy, however, is to underline the policy's chief limitation: its failure to tie regional considerations to strategic ones. This is a requirement created not by American fancy but by the fact of Soviet and Cuban intervention, which has created a strategic factor where one did not previously exist. Not alone, the Carter administration had not anticipated the importance of this factor. Since it is complex and politically volatile, there were bound to be different views on how to deal with it. And so there are. NATO's warnings to Moscow and the proposal for a pan-African force are part of the international response the administration is seeking. But they hardly represent a comprehensive policy. The administration, with its allies in Europe and its friends in Africa, will have to continue the work of creating one.