THE SOVIET GAS pipeline provides another illustration of the deep differences of political perspective between Americans and Western Europeans. A West German gas company has signed the crucial contract with the Soviets and--over the sharp remonstrances of the Reagan administration --this gigantic project will now get under way. The American objections are simple enough: West Germany's dependence on Soviet gas would increase, giving the Soviets a dangerous leverage--or so the U.S. State Department believes--on West German policy.

The German, and European, response is complex. While Germans need the gas, the Soviets need the return flow of deutschemarks and the things that they buy. D,etente has always been based on the logic that trade can stabilize political relationships, and the Germans are deeply anxious to recommence progress toward greater d,etente. While the commercial aspects of this project are irrelevant to Americans, to Europeans the enormous contracts for steel tubing and the pumps are a compelling attraction in a time of high and rising unemployment.

Since Europe, unlike the United States, does not have large domestic reserves of gas and oil, Europeans argue with great force that their security must reside in diversification of sources. They have been buying both gas and oil from the Soviets for many years and have found them far more reliable as suppliers than, say, Iran or Algeria.

Europe's chief source of gas, the Dutch sector of the North Sea, won't last forever. The Norwegians are being very cool and noncommittal about the future of their share of the North Sea gas. The Algerians have a lot of gas, but aren't currently selling much of it. An American project to import liquefied natural gas from Algeria collapsed, with huge losses, because the Algerians raised their prices. A European group has just completed a gas line from Algeria under the sea to Italy. But there's no gas flowing in the line because, again, Algeria has raised its price.

Europeans hope that the Soviet gas may make the Algerians a little less intransigent. They hope that the Dutch gas, and perhaps eventually Algerian gas, will diminish the value of the Soviet gas as a political weapon. More broadly, they feel themselves very vulnerable these days, and they want to keep lines open in as many directions as they can.