BRUSSELS, OCT. 24 -- The European allies expressed surprise and disappointment today at the unexpected Soviet reluctance to fix dates for a long-awaited U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in the United States.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz said, however, that the United States and the Soviet Union could sign an agreement on eliminating intermediate- and shorter-range nuclear missiles in another setting if it is finished before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is ready to come to Washington to meet with President Reagan.
Shultz, who briefed North Atlantic alliance foreign ministers here on his two days of talks in Moscow, seemed to go out of his way at a news conference to dissociate summit doubts from the fate or schedule of a U.S.-Soviet agreement on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) in Europe. Negotiations on the missiles moved ahead during the Moscow discussions, he said, and prospects for an early agreement "look good."
"It's a question of steady as she goes," he added.
"I think it would be good to have a summit" for the signing of the treaty, he said later. "But if it isn't convenient to do it in a timely fashion, then we can look for another way."
There was speculation among members of Shultz's party that an expected letter from Gorbachev to Reagan might propose that he and Reagan meet in a third country for the signing of an INF agreement, which would give Gorbachev a way to celebrate the treaty without going to the United States.
One U.S. official said Soviet officials had mentioned to the Irish government that they might be interested in having a meeting there.
Members of Shultz's party said, however, that Reagan probably would insist on sticking by Gorbachev's earlier commitment to come to the United States. No one would predict what Reagan would do if confronted with a choice between a meeting in a third country or no summit at all.
The Soviet hesitations over a summit meeting seemed to dampen the atmosphere at North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters here. European officials and commentators have been pointing at plans for a Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting this fall along with the likely missiles accord as equally important signs of relaxed tensions in East-West relations.
Until yesterday's setback, Europeans had widely anticipated that Shultz's Moscow meetings would produce an announcement that the INF agreement was almost ready for signature and a date for the summit meeting in Washington at which Reagan and Gorbachev would do the signing. With this apparently in mind, all alliance governments except Greece and Turkey sent foreign ministers to today's briefing, not the lower level officials often deputized to attend.
The NATO secretary general, Lord Carrington, said the ministers who heard Shultz gave a "particular welcome for what is clearly further significant progress in moving to completion of a fully verifiable INF agreement."
But Carrington added in a statement on Shultz's closed-door briefing: "While the question of a bilateral summit is a matter for the two countries concerned, there was some surprise at the Soviet Union's hesitation over an early meeting."
The British foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, called Soviet reservations about the schedule for a summit conference "somewhat disappointing."
"The reaction must be that once again it is time for cool heads and steady nerves in pursuit of our original objectives," he said.
Gorbachev unexpectedly told Shultz in their meeting yesterday that he has hesitations about the schedule of his planned trip to the United States. Tass, the official Soviet news agency, quoted the Soviet leader as saying he is ready to visit the United States, "but so far I am put on my guard by possible results."
Shultz and European officials expressed puzzlement at the delay, indicating it was their understanding that Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had agreed with Shultz last month that Gorbachev would visit Washington this fall to sign the intermediate-range weapons accord.
Shevardnadze said in a news conference yesterday that the Gorbachev visit also must be designed to reach "an accord in principle" on reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons and limiting space and antimissile defense systems.
The Reagan administration has been looking forward to Gorbachev's visit as a chance to enhance Reagan's image as a statesman and encourage an atmosphere in U.S.-Soviet relations favorable to further progress in arms control, including the talks on reducing strategic arms by 50 percent.
Against that background, Shultz declined to speculate on the reasons for Gorbachev's reluctance to set a schedule for a summit now. Some reports from Moscow suggested that the Soviet leader may be using the summit meeting as an instrument to pressure the Reagan administration for concessions on the proposed U.S. space-based antimissile defense system known as the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Howe also joined Shultz in dismissing a suggestion yesterday from Gorbachev that the western allies and the Soviet Union demonstrate progress and good faith by declaring a moratorium beginning Nov. 1 on production, testing and deployment of medium- and shorter-range missiles pending completion of the INF treaty.
"It would be very unwise for us . . . to put the treaty into effect before it is finished," Shultz said.
Similarly, he declined a Gorbachev proposal that, as reported by Tass, would bind the Soviet Union to declare a one-year moratorium on work at the disputed Krasnoyarsk radar site in exchange for a parallel halt to work on a U.S. radar installation in England. Shultz said the Krasnoyarsk radar is in clear violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty while the U.S. site is permitted as improvement on an existing installation.Washington Post staff writer Don Oberdorfer, traveling with Shultz, contributed to this article.