Ronald Reagan is often accused of arbitrarily putting an ideological cast on East-West relations, as though but for him the two sides' natural mutual attractions would flourish. But life itself, as Nikita Khrushchev liked to say, is putting that cast on the summit. An astonishing series of incidents has just illuminated the fundamental difference between East and West. It is an ideological difference: we offer individuals choice, they don't.

In its various aspects this qualitative edge is in rich view in the cases of the Soviet Ukrainian sailor who jumped ship in New Orleans, the Soviet soldier who slipped into the American embassy in Kabul, the family of captive Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, and Vitaly Yurchenko, the Soviet spy who came in from the cold and went back out again.

Immigration officials in New Orleans stupidly handed back the sailor to his ship, but the State Department entered the case and got him a second chance. Three federal appeals judges then ruled that the sailor did have a noncoercive setting in which to weigh asylum. To be sure, in the larger context there was Soviet pressure on the sailor and his family. Unfortunately, no one has devised a way to protect Soviet individuals from pressures of that sort.

We can guess that the young Soviet soldier who slipped into the American embassy in Afghanistan was aware of similar, indeed, far grosser, pressures. How could he not have been, what with the embassy ringed by Soviet tanks, pinned by spotlights and deprived of electricity? Nonetheless, a procedure was set up in the besieged embassy to allow this unfortunate teen-ager to make what choice was available to him in the still-foggy circumstances.

Andrei Sakharov's wife is apparently on her way out, for medical treatment, after the summit. The physicist himself may be a kind of summit hostage. The importance the Kremlin attaches to demonstrating a capacity to control and humble its citizens is fully conveyed by its readiness to endure international obloquy for years in order to make an example of the Sakharovs.

Of the puzzle of Vitaly Yurchenko, I will note today merely that his departure is an extraordinary advertisement for America. Someone who had severely embarrassed this country, and who may do further dirty work, received every privilege available to Americans as he took his bizarre leave. The same choice that was offered to the sailor in New Orleans and the soldier in Kabul, and that was denied for so long to the Sakharovs, was offered instantly to the spy in Washington. The United States made sure "they understood completely that they were welcome here," as the president said on Wednesday.

True, not everyone contemplating this record is prepared to let it go with a burst of self-congratulation on the integrity of the American system. Leave Yurchenko aside for the moment. Few of us can keep from seething at the spectacle of official cruelty meted out or threatened against individuals who can do no harm to Kremlin interests.

Many other Americans are no doubt ready, when these episodes break, to look for ways to get back at Moscow -- say, in the present circumstances, by suspending the privileges of law for characters like Yurchenko. To see him walk out of the State Department waving at the cameras while Soviet guns encircle the American Embassy in Kabul: that hurts.

There is a school that holds that one should expect no more from the Soviets. The implication, sometimes unstated, is that it's necessary to set "human rights" aside and get on to more important things. But inspecting my own nerve endings over a period of time, I find I am more consistently disturbed by specific acts of Soviet hostility to human dignity than I am alarmed by the theoretical perils of nuclear war. The two are not unrelated.

A second school holds that we should demand that the Soviets shape up. Some members of this school know perfectly well that asking the Kremlin to shape up, beyond a point, is asking it to change its nature, that it won't or can't, and that the true and sometimes hidden purpose of such a request is to derail other cars -- arms control, for instance -- on the Soviet- American line.

For me this is one of those dilemmas that doesn't so much have to be resolved as accepted and conscientiously lived with. We live with many unsettled matters. That beats glib answers. On this painful question, Reagan seems to me to be going the right way.