There is a hollow note in the complaints Soviets are making to Americans about American foreign policy. In pointing it out I do not mean merely to be tendentious but to direct attention to an area -- perhaps the only currently in view -- where diplomatic probing might produce results.

The hollow note is the Soviet emphasis on the NATO decision of last December to deploy in West Europe new medium-range missiles capable of striking targets on Soviet territory. Soviet officials decry this as an unprovoked decision taken to circumvent SALT, which limits just the home- (and sea-) based missiles that the two powers aim at each other. This was the particular step, they say, that forced them to reconsider whether the Carter administration was serious about improving relations. It has become their stock rejoinder to the American complaint that the real spanner was their invasion of Afghanistan.

Now, when the Kremlin says that new missiles in Europe circumvent the spirit of SALT, it has a certain point. It was only a mutual readiness to postpone the matter of controlling nuclear weapons based in Europe that the SALT I and II talks proceeded. These were always meant to be taken up in SALT III, and the United States is stealing a march (though not violating any letter of SALT) by undertaking to deploy a new and hot system -- involving 600 missiles that can hit Soviet territory -- even before Salt III talks have begun.

What Moscow ignores, however, is why the new missiles are being worked up. The reason is that the Soviet Union -- also within the letter but contrary to the spirit of SALT -- has trained its own new missiles on West Europe. This deployment came, moreover, just as the Soviet Union's arrival at overall parity was raising the question of whether the United States would still risk nuclear war to save Europe in a crisis. The new missiles were seen as the best available way to convey the assurance that if Moscow made a nuclear threat against Europe, the United States would threaten Moscow back.

In short, the (proposed) American missiles that the Kremlin is now complaining about and endowing with detente-busting significance are a direct response to the (deployed) Soviet missilies that are a leading instrument of a Kremlin policy aimed at sneaking around SALT and intimidating Europe.

In Afghanistan there is a war on and it is clear enough that it will be settled on the battlefield. The only negotiation the Kremlin has offered is one whose purposes would be to gain foreign acceptance of its invasion. Not even our wobblier Euopean allies seem ready for that. The world may have qualms about actively helping the Afghan resistance but it has greater qualms about actively selling it out.

With "Euromissiles," however, it's a political contest and the West, though it commonly appears too shell-shocked to recognize so, is in an advantageous position. The Europeans, in agreeing to deploy the new missiles, were creating a bargaining chip out of technological advantage and an uncommon alliance resolve. The new missiles, furthermore, apparently are dandies: they may merely duplicate coverage of targets already covered by our long-range missiles but they do with a vengeance and they trouble the Soviets deeply.

What would Moscow pay to head off those new missiles?

They are beavering away, of course, to get off free by playing on the alliance differences made wider and rawer by recent arguments over policy outside Europe. If Moscow does succeed in suspending Europe's deployment plans without knocking down its own SS20s, then the debate over whether Europe is being "Finlandized" will be over.

If only to avoid that specter, however, I think, the United States will have to take the lead in a European-security negotiation. Mr. Carter's current political and diplomatic license for this project may be slight -- unless he is reelected. If Ronald Reagan wins, he would be under the same pressure -- to enter a negotiation to keep the alliance together -- and under the same incentive -- to negotiate in an area where the alliance has a strong hand.

There is the matter of SALT II. It was supposed to be finished before Euromissiles, among other items, were put on the table in SALT III. So finish it, for this reason and many others. But if that's not possible, proceed anyway.

We are in a vexing period in our relations with the Soviets: alert to the demands of competition, lacking the confidence to explore openings to cooperation. Under one president or another, we need to move ahead on both fronts.