The Reagan administration defends its abrasive attempt to impose sanctions against the Soviet natural- gas pipeline primarily as an attempt to keep a candle burning for Poland. But the messy confrontation suggests that while trying to light a votive candle it has set the curtains afire. President Reagan has some impressive arguments against the pipeline. Greater European dependency on Soviet energy sources could indeed create a major political pressure point. But the claim that the United States is a better student of European needs and interests than the Europeans themselves cannot hold water and will not win the day.

For more than a decade, U.S. and European interests have steadily diverged in all sorts of ways. The Nixon-Kissinger d,etente temporarily disguised and mollified that divergence. Moreover, with reluctant approval from Washington, the two Germanys improved their relationship, which remains at the heart of the European issue. This was a great relief to Europe.

Just as d,etente had spread an air of greater ease through Western Europe, the Reagan administration crashed onto the scene. Its diplomatic style and aims seemed to most Europeans a throwback to the days of John Foster Dulles and were, to that extent, unwelcome. The Reagan administration is influenced by the simplistic view that Western Europe may now be too weary and "Finlandized" to sustain the Western cause at the very time when, paradoxically, the Soviet Union has a case of the staggers. Although both these assumptions are probably wrong, it is tempting to press forward, substituting coercion for leadership, and heavy rhetoric for a sensitive appreciation of the choices that West Europeans see before them.

What is fundamentally lacking is a common working view of the East-West issue. To the Europeans the Russian threat, however real, is colored by different memories of the causes and aftermath of World War II. To most Europeans, communist Russia has always looked suspiciously like the old czarist Russia. Ideological confrontation as such has never been the paramount concern it was in Washington, and now has become once again. From the European point of view, the United States weighs too casually the hard choices imposed by energy stringency on its allies. For Europeans, the alternative to increased supplies of Soviet gas is increased dependency on Mideast oil -- a source whose reliability is not enhanced, in the European view, by U.S. patronage of Israel.

Reagan's reversion to the Dulles style of moralism and rhetoric sharpens all underlying strains and differences. When Dulles was proceeding in the same manner, American power minimized the risks to Atlantic solidarity. The Europeans had no choice but to go along. Today, there is the legacy of Gaullism to draw upon -- de Gaulle's insistent teaching that Europe need not follow American leadership, or accept American domination beyond its own vital interests. It is not surprising that the first direct challenge to the pipelines policy came from France. And the critical point is that Europe is following Mitterrand, not Reagan.

The Reagan administration's official rhetoric is soothingly internationalist. But its policies, and not merely on the Siberian gas issue, are disturbingly unilateralist, not to say isolationist.