The real argument over the pipeline to carry Soviet gas to Western Europe isn't over the danger of European energy dependency on the Soviets, or the denial of sorely needed hard currency the Soviets would earn from selling more natural gas in Europe.

The Europeans point out, persuasively, that their actual energy dependency won't change with the pipeline: it will mostly shift from oil purchases, due to decline, to natural gas. In any case, the Europeans are sure the pipeline will be built and that any delay caused by the U.S. sanctions will be offset by increased Soviet gas deliveries through existing facilities.

The real argument is more fundamental. It would also seem to be reconcilable only in the wider context of a "global" alliance strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union. This means a common definition of the true nature of the Soviet threat before there can be any hope of a consensus on how best to deal with it. That this is the heart of the matter has been made all too clear to both sides in exploratory diplomacy practiced by Secretary of State George Shultz with the four principal European counterparts from Britain, West Germany, Italy and France, and at a NATO foreign ministers meeting over the past week or two.

From what I'm told the exploration both did and did not prove fruitful. In the matter of the U.S. pipeline sanctions and their relation to Poland, the conversations didn't get very far. For the sake of at least minimal harmony, the pipeline question was simply set aside at the meeting in Canada. The French, in particular, evidenced no interest in even discussing it. They (and other Europeans) argue that the next move is for the United States to drop its campaign against the pipeline if it wants to get on to larger business.

If the larger business is to be a concerted allied policy on trade relations with the Soviet Union, linked to Soviet behavior, this kind of tradeoff would have powerful appeal to many officials in the State, Commerce and Treasury departments who never liked the pipeline sanctions in the first place. But presenting this as a "tradeoff" would imply that the United States had a right to impose sanctions on its allies.

So the strategy now is to concentrate U.S. diplomacy on identifying future pressure points against the Soviet Union on which the allies could agree: credit terms, controls over technology transfers, a long-term energy policy that would take into account both Europe's dependencies and the hard-currency question. Publicly, no quid pro quo would be acknowledged. But privately, as one insider puts it, the idea is "to try to find some way to agree collectively on the terms of future trade with the Soviet Union. This would permit us to remove, or be more reasonable on, retroactive sanctions."

Even if this proposition can be sold to the Europeans, it will still have to be sold to Ronald Reagan. Given his almost theological insistence on not doing business as usual with the Soviets (even business previously agreed to) while they are crushing Polish freedom, it's a close question which is the more difficult selling job.