The Libyan question is getting in the way of Soviet-American relations, some anxiously say: it has led Moscow to put off a foreign ministers' meeting, and it may yet block a summit, and only at a summit can the necessary mutual impetus be given to an arms control agreement.

Well, yes, but. Almost all of us want a good arms control agreement, and it is terribly important. Knowing this, Moscow, which rejected a Reagan effort to link Soviet regional conduct to arms control just last fall, hints now at linkage of American regional conduct to arms control. But the Libyan question should not be regarded as something secondary or extraneous that gets in the way of something central. The Libyan question itself is central. It goes to the core of the differences between the great powers as nuclear survival, recognized as an indivisible mutual imperative, does not.

Many criticisms are made of Ronald Reagan's policy toward Muammar Qaddafi: he has made too much of the Libyan, burdened the allies, ignored Arab sensibilities, and so forth. But whether they are fair or unfair, all these criticisms go to tactics. On the large strategic question, whether Qaddafi is a danger to Western interests, Reagan is absolutely right.

Look at Soviet strategy. The Kremlin professes an abhorrence of terrorism and a devotion to peaceful ways. Yet for its geopolitical purposes it has embraced Qaddafi as a Mediterranean partner, loaded him up with weapons and in general provided the patronage and wherewithal without which he would be very small potatoes. In short, Moscow has made him the danger to Western interests he unquestionably is.

In its statement protesting the American raid, the Soviet government -- borrowing a term from the American debate -- accused the United States of a "new globalism." It was described as "a policy of aggression, provoking regional conflicts, a policy of perpetuating confrontation and balancing on the brink of war." This may strike many Americans as a rough but recognizable allusion not only to Libya but to Nicaragua, Afghanistan and other points of current Soviet- American contention.

At various of these points it is possible to say that Reagan is playing it wrong. At all of these points, it is necessary to say that Mikhail Gorbachev is playing it hard. For these are the places where some form of Soviet power advanced in the 1970s. By the 1980s American power was contesting these advances. Moscow acted, Washington reacted. That's what we see now.

In the West we too commonly debate the American reaction without considering that it followed a Soviet action. But whatever its flaws and excesses, the "new globalism" -- or, as it is sometimes called, the Reagan Doctrine -- is not a gratuitous and unprovoked initiative. It is a policy of resistance to recent Soviet initiatives. Moscow, of course, is disturbed to be resisted.

Is the Kremlin getting so disturbed that it would call off the summit, set aside arms control and escalate its Third World proxy battle with Ronald Reagan, counting perhaps on an unnerved American political system to elect a more amenable president in 1988? Gorbachev introduced a veiled version of this critical question on March 6. "Of course, the militarist, aggressive forces would prefer to freeze, to perpetuate confrontation," he said. Then a telltale hint of the gut argument in the Politburo: "And what, comrades, are we to do? Slam the door?"

The Gorbachev answer: "It cannot be ruled out that that is exactly the sort of thing they are pressing us to do. But we are keenly aware of our responsibility for the fate of the country, for the fate of peace. And for this reason we do not intend to play up to those who would want to make humanity grow accustomed to the nuclear threat and the arms race."

Translation: The Soviet leadership seems committed enough to its reform program, and to satisfying the popular expectations Gorbachev has stirred, to stick with his revival of the American connection, at least for now.

And later? I sense that President Reagan is starting to eye the calendar. It's his sixth year. He has spent huge sums on defense, and claims great success in restoring American prestige and power, but, unless you count Grenada, he has nothing concrete to show for it. Qaddafi is defiant, Daniel Ortega is more firmly ensconced than ever, and Moscow rejects his arms control terms.

A Reagan who was pressing for a final-quarter victory against a Gorbachev whose Politburo is tempted to "slam the door": two wild cards in a game that, without some mutual care, could get very rough in the next few years.