WHAT IS ONE to make of the fact that even as the United States sets records in sales of weapons and military services to foreign nations, it claims new promise in negotiations with the Russians aimed at restraining the global pattern of these very sales? An idealist sighs. A cynic snorts. A diplomat clears his throat. We merely note that the inconsistency, though embarrassing to the administration and puzzling to many others, reflects the complexity of the real world.It is a world in which the pace and relative cheapness of high technology are putting arsenals "worthy" of great powers into the hands of small powers: in which the suppliers by day seek influence and profit by selling arms and at night wake up wondering what mischief and harm - to themselves - they have wrought.

In the fiscal year just ended, the United States sold $13.6 billion worth of weapons and military services abroad - a record that a president who campaigned fervently against such transactions is hardly inclined to boast about. Feeling defensive, the administration asks credit for nipping in under its self-set sub-ceiling of $8.5 billion in sales to countries that are either poor or situated in regions of potential conflict, such as the Middle East. But $8.5 billion is a lot of ceiling, especially when the context is considered. "Since 1970," the State Department gravely acknowledges, "Western and Eastern suppliers have made arms-transfer commitments of about $140 billion to developing countries. Most of this equipment has not yet been delivered, much less absorbed. . . . [These arms] will change the face of world politics. For the first time, many states throughout the world will have arms of much the same sophistication and quality as those of the few major powers." In brief, the prospect is truly alarming.

It has had, nonetheless, a salutary result. It has focused the Soviet and American governments on the risks of allowing conventional-arms transfers to spiral even more dangerously out of control. The two powers opened talks on the matter last December. The Russians have since moved, the State Department reports, from "a totally negative position" to agreement that the problem must be dealt with urgently. A "framework for approaching restraint" has been developed. Fine. The practical test will be whether concrete steps can soon be taken - for example, interim mutual restraints on transfers to particular regions. The promised land is not in sight. A somewhat saner international environment conceivably is.

If progress in the talks has been slight, it has been sufficient to show that the United States and the Soviet Union cannot solve this problem alone. The European arms suppliers, especially France, sell hard and have economies even more dependent on arms industries, and arms industries even more dependent on exports, than the great powers. Earlier in the talks the allies said they could not consider restraint until the Russians were brouht in. The Russians are being brought in. The Europeans' bluff is being called.