THE MADRID conference on human rights, security and cooperation in Europe, currently in recess, has seemed kind of remote and irrelevant while the Soviets have been threatening to roll over Poland. Yet the conference, summoned to review the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, has a place in the proceedings, modest but useful all the same.

The Final Act, a consensus political statement, called on its 35 signers (including the United States) to "refrain . . . from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State." To blunt any claim under the "Brezhnev doctrine" allowing Moscow to impose its brand of socialism, the act added: "No consideration may be invoked to serve the warrant resort to the threat or use of force in contravention of this principle." Moscow has not let Helsinki deny it use of the intimidation card, which it has played in the form of Warsaw Pact maneuvers, threatening statements and the like. Nonetheless, Helsinki has provided a specific and fresh standard against which to measure Soviet crudeness.

The Helsinki Act included an obligation to give notice of military maneuvers, apart from the intelligence the signers acquire on their own. The idea of this "confidence-building measure" was not so much to prevent a surprise attack as to expose any country that ran maneuvers for purposes of pressure rather than preparedness. So far in Poland, the Soviet Union has not given notice of its maneuvers. Given the loopholes, this may not be a technical violation. But the common knowledge that the Soviets have not given notice has put the spotlight on Moscow.

Unembarrassed, as always, the Soviets have pressed the question of notice of maneuvers in Madrid. Their apparent purpose is to brazen their way out and to show Europeans what trustworthy fellows they are. Their proposal, to extend the area of notice to the Urals and North America, was launched by Leonid Brezhnev and has been rebuffed by the United States on grounds that Helsinki is about Europe. But the Soviets are said to be showing a certain interest still in a French proposal to make notification more verifiable and obligatory.

Many conservatives feared at the time that Helsinki was a trap in which Moscow would ensnare Western peaceniks. Actually, Helsinki has given the West a handy forum in which to demand tht the Soviet Union respect its professed ideals and act in civilized ways. You could say that Helsinki is only talk. We would say, without apology, that it is talk and more. For the tension in Europe, don't blame Helsinki and Madrid.