Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze spent more than four hours here today in intensive discussion of arms-control issues in preparation for the U.S.-Soviet summit, but U.S. aides said the wide gap between the two nations did not narrow.

Shultz said as he emerged from the meeting at the Soviet mission to the United Nations here that "no particular new proposals were put on the table." An aide to Shultz said the session "broke no new ground on either side."

Nevertheless, the tone and atmosphere of the meeting was reported by U.S. participants to be notably improved from similar sessions in the past with Andrei A. Gromyko, whom Shevardnadze succeeded in July.

The Soviet side has been widely reported to be preparing a new arms offer involving large-scale cuts in strategic offensive arms in return for tight new restrictions on the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" plan.

A U.S. participant said the Soviets did not flesh out their ideas on such an arrangement during today's meeting. The source declined to forecast whether such a proposal would be presented to President Reagan by Shevardnadze at a White House meeting planned for Friday morning.

The Soviet news agency Tass reported several hours after the meeting that Shevardnadze reiterated to Shultz the Soviet leadership's viewpoint that the search for agreements regarding nuclear and space arms -- the subject of the current Geneva negotiations -- should be "the central purpose" of the Nov. 19-20 meeting between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Tass account said Shevardnadze discussed with Shultz a recent Soviet moratorium on nuclear weapons tests and the "Star Peace" proposal, stressed by the foreign minister at the United Nations yesterday, involving international cooperation in nonmilitary uses of outer space.

Shultz and Shevardnadze, looking relaxed as they spoke to reporters after the session, agreed that the exchanges were "useful" and "frank." The latter word, in diplomatic parlance, indicates disagreement.

As if to emphasize the point, Shevardnadze told the press, "Frankness is a necessary precondition for establishing the truth."

Nearly all of the meeting, which lasted four hours and twenty minutes, was devoted to arms issues, according to U.S. officials, who indicated that a continuation of the talks with Shevardnadze at the White House and State Department on Friday would cover other topics, such as regional conflicts, bilateral relations and human rights, which are on the U.S. agenda for the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting.

The topic of a special U.S.-Soviet meeting on Central and South American issues, one of a series on regional questions, did not come up today but such a meeting will be held at the expert level, a U.S. official said.

Shevardnadze's meetings with Shultz and Reagan are considered important to the outcome of the Nov. 19-20 summit. State Department officials said they consider it unlikely that Reagan and Gorbachev could come to a major agreement on arms control and other key issues without considerable advance preparation in such sessions as these.

Shultz was accompanied to the session with Shevardnadze by White House national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane.

Judging by the U.N. speeches of Shultz and Shevardnadze this week, the two sides are at odds on almost everything except the expressed desire that the summit result in an improvement of relations.

The differences were particularly sharp regarding space arms. Shultz called the Soviet objections to SDI "propaganda" that is "not to be taken seriously" and charged that SDI would add to the security of both sides.

Shevardnadze gave top emphasis to an attack on SDI, which he depicted as a U.S. bid for strategic superiority and the possibility of a relatively safe "first disarming nuclear strike" against the Soviet Union.

Another aspect of the East-West competition became clearer today with the announcement at the United Nations by Netherlands Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek that Dutch deployment of U.S.-built cruise missiles as part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization deployment of these weapons "now seems to become inevitable" because the Soviet Union is unwilling to reduce its corresponding missile force.

The Dutch government is due to make a formal decision by Nov. 1, but deployment is still unlikely before 1988. The Dutch position on deployment of U.S. missiles in Europe has been hotly contested in that country.

Van den Broek made the announcement, in a speech prepared for delivery to the General Assembly, after conferring on the issue with Shevardnadze.

In another U.N. speech today, British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe said the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting "will be an important opportunity for searching and substantive discussions which can lay the foundations for greater mutual confidence between East and West."

Howe expressed hope that the outcome will demonstrate that Reagan and Gorbachev "are serious in their desire to overcome the difficulties between them."