The so-called Pasta War is only the latest skirmish in a series of tit-for-tats between the United States and the European Community arising from alleged unfair trade practices. Sometimes it's steel. Sometimes it's chickens. The last flareup started when the Europeans refused to respond to complaints of discrimination against American citrus products.

So the Reagan administration let them have it with increased tariffs on pasta. The Europeans cracked back with increased tariffs not just for American lemons but, hang on, walnuts as well.

These are grown-ups at work? Right: shortsighted, small-minded, quick-on-the-trigger grown-ups, playing politics for lack of large vision, strong leadership and a concerted policy.

A tentative truce seems to have been worked out for the Pasta War. But just as a "phony war" can be the prelude to real war (as we learned in World War II), so can the mindless reflexes revealed in the Pasta War be the harbinger of something a whole lot worse.

What Vice President George Bush encountered on his recent trip to Europe was only a whiff of trade- warfare winds that he thinks are reaching gale force in the U.S. Congress. In an interview, Bush said he's "never seen the Congress so up in arms about" foreign competition, and that he's passing the word to the Europeans and the Japanese: "It's textiles, telecommunications, shoes, citrus, beef, almost everything you could think of." There's a strong possibility, he is saying, that a U.S. policy aimed at containing a global trade war will get lost in the congressional stampede.

"We're finding more and more legislation getting into the veto-proof range in terms of signatures," Bush reports. There lies the heart of the problem. When you ask Bush whether congressional protectionist pressure may not strengthen the administration's hand in dealing with what it considers to be unfair trade practices by foreign competitors, he responded with an emphatic "Yes." He even sees signs of "more understanding that we're not just crying wolf."

But this presupposes some measure of control over events. As it is with real war, so it is with trade war: "The ability to get to the verge without getting into war," John Foster Dulles once said, "is the necessary art."

The hard numbers are inescapable. Last year, the U.S. trade deficit -- the amount by which the value of exports is exceeded by imports -- hit a record $123 billion. That's 10 times the figure 10 years ago; it could reach $150 billion this year. Fueling this trade deficit is the huge U.S. budget deficit. This accounts for the relative strength of the dollar against weaker foreign currencies, making imports cheap and exports expensive.

For this state of affairs, the Reagan administration has no easy answer other than to denounce the Democrats for "protectionist legislation of the rankest kind" (as Treasury Secretary James Baker described the new Democratic trade bill) and to preach "free trade" and promise to work for "fair trade." But unless it can come up with a more reassuring alternative, the protectionist pressures now building in Congress may well prevail.