LONDON, DEC. 4 -- Nearly three years into the Gorbachev era, much of the world still is unsure what to make of the Soviet leader and the unmistakably different style he has stamped on his country's image.

That Mikhail Gorbachev has captured international attention is without doubt. From Bonn to Buenos Aires, from Cairo to Tokyo, government officials and diplomats endlessly compare notes on their encounters with "new thinking" Gorbachev emissaries, swapping opinions on whether reforms inside the Soviet Union will expand and last and on what it all means for long-term international stability.

Not surprisingly, judgments on Gorbachev so far depend largely on the perspective and special concerns of who is doing the judging. Most, but by no means all, are pleased with the change.

A survey by Washington Post correspondents around the world in recent weeks indicated that in many countries, and within many individuals, the Soviet leader and his policies provoke contradictory reactions. Hope, caution, curiosity and cynicism all were expressed by a wide range of government officials, journalists, academics and other opinion-makers.

Chinese leaders, while welcoming a smoother relationship with their traditional rival next door, note that Gorbachev has done little to address their longstanding concerns over Cambodia, Afghanistan and the heavily militarized Sino-Soviet border. Domestically, they worry that he may "outreform" them with his campaign for more efficiency and openness in Soviet society.

Japan, mindful of a century of bad relations with the Russians, is wary of the smiling new Soviet face.

In West Germany, where East-West tensions are closest to home, there is a nervous willingness to "take him at his word" on questions of arms control and a new era of detente. Canada, where opinion polls show more concern over U.S. than Soviet militarism these days, is enthusiastic. France, which prides itself on a general lack of emotion in foreign affairs, is restrained, but suspects Gorbachev of playing a subtle arms control game that the West is in danger of losing.

In the Middle East, some Israelis hope he can help lead them out of decades of regional isolation, while moderate Arabs fear his intentions in the Persian Gulf. Palestinians, whom Soviet diplomats helped reconcile last spring, gave a standing ovation at the mention of Gorbachev's name during the April meeting of the Palestine National Council.

In Britain, where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher last month called Gorbachev a "man of courage," his upcoming summit in Washington has brought him the celebrity status of a movie star or a member of the royal family.

A senior Thatcher aide insisted that the prime minister's steely reputation ensured that no one would think she was "going soft" on the Soviets. But some British officials still worry that what one called a massive "Gorbasm" sweeping Western Europe could pick up its own potentially dangerous popular momentum at the expense of the United States and its aged leader.

There is widespread reluctance around the world to make long-term predictions about where Gorbachev's "new thinking" will lead. No one wants to be left holding the bag of naive and unwarranted optimism if it all goes wrong. But while the verdict is still out on where style ends and substantive change begins, much of the world agrees that there has been a profound difference under Gorbachev in the way the Soviet Union does business.

Those who have had direct contact with Gorbachev and his emissaries find them more open and flexible and less apt to fall back on ideological cant. The Soviets display an increased willingness to seek new relationships, with a marked absence of hostility and suspicion. As a result, dealing with them on nearly every level has become easier.

The change starts at the top. Gorbachev, Thatcher told an Italian journalist last month, "is quite different from any other Soviet leader I have ever known. When you meet him, you can discuss with him just as you and I are discussing together, easily, without strict reference to briefs.

"So often when you talk to ministers from the Soviet Union," Thatcher said, "they have to follow a brief in detail. It is very dull. You ask questions, and they do not answer them. Mr. Gorbachev does. You can get involved in a real discussion, a real argument, and that is very valuable."

Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, like Thatcher, is said to have developed a close personal relationship with Gorbachev. At the last one-on-one session between the two leaders, Gorbachev "did not have a single paper in front of him, but rattled off all the correct facts and figures," an Indian Foreign Ministry official recalled.

For countries such as India, which has a recent history of close ties with the Soviets, the change is a welcome and overwhelmingly positive one, and extends noticeably beyond Gorbachev himself.

"It's much easier to talk to them, and they're much less hung up," said a diplomat from India's embassy in Moscow, visiting New Delhi recently with Soviet Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov.

The new international openness also has moved Moscow to try to repair historically damaged relationships and to form new ones.

In faraway Latin America, Gorbachev's emissaries are easier for Latins to relate to than their blustering, fist-pounding, dour-faced predecessors, and in recent months there has been a perceptible warming of Latin-Soviet ties, particularly with the region's most important powers -- Argentina, Mexico and Brazil.

During his September tour of the Big Three Latin countries, a smiling, friendly Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze emphasized economics and politics and appeared determined to put to rest any outdated ideas of Soviet expansionist aims.

At the same time, Shevardnadze reached for common ground with his hosts, backing Argentine claims to the Falkland Islands, supporting Brazil's initiative for a demilitarized South Atlantic and taking the Latin side on debates with the United States over foreign debt, trade barriers and the Central American peace plan.

The Latins remain skeptical of Soviet follow-through, particularly on expanded economic partnerships. But the region's new democratic leaders identify with Gorbachev's efforts, similar to their own, to breathe new life into cumbersome state enterprises at home.

Some countries are unsure how to react to the onslaught of international glasnost. A British official told of a recent visit to Egypt, where he and his colleagues arrived hot on the heels of a Soviet delegaton headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Yuli Vorontsov.

Vorontsov, he said, had left the Egyptians perplexed and seeking counsel. " 'You've got to understand,' " he said they told him. " 'Here's this guy, speaking English, talking to everybody, answering questions. Acting like an American.' "

There is a general feeling in the Middle East that U.S. influence is declining, while the Soviet role, locked prior to 1985 into the hard-line camp of Syria and Libya, is expanding. But Gorbachev's long-term aims remain unclear, and Moscow's new activism in the region has been alternately welcomed and suspected.

In recent months, for example, Palestinian acclaim has turned increasingly to fear that the Soviets will adopt a new position detrimental to Arab interests on a peace conference with Israel. The Palestinians are unsure what line Gorbachev will take when Jordan's King Hussein this month becomes the second Arab leader, after Syria's Hafez Assad, to visit him in Moscow.

Syria, the Soviets' principal Middle East client, has been stunned by Moscow's active exploration of renewed diplomatic relations with Israel. Long Damascus' chief arms supplier and its hope of achieving strategic parity with Israel, Moscow now is only replacing Syrian military hardware. It has eschewed the introduction of any major new weapons systems that would change the military balance.

During Assad's visit to Moscow, Gorbachev made a point of saying in public that the problems of the Middle East could be solved only by diplomacy.

In the Persian Gulf, the Soviets have been playing a balancing game on which time may be running out. Looking for a long-term relationship with Iran, they still are committed to a United Nations arms embargo should a peaceful solution to the Iran-Iraq war not be found. According to one western diplomat in the gulf, Soviet ambassadors know they are very much "under suspicion" by anti-Iranian Arabs for dragging their feet. A key test for Gorbachev in the region will be whether he can continue to stay in the middle between the Arabs and Iran without penalty.

Even in Israel, however, where strong ties with the United States are in little danger of being eroded, Moscow's policy in the gulf is seen as more clever and flexible than that of the United States. The Soviets, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told a news conference in late October, appeared to be "the only superpower who can talk to both sides" there.

But contradictory Soviet moves in the Middle East still are cause for both optimism and suspicion among the Israelis.

Shevardnadze has met twice with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in the past 13 months, midlevel contacts have proliferated and members of a 90-day Soviet consular mission this year were treated as media celebrities in Israel. Israeli officials note approvingly that, in a speech during Assad's visit, Gorbachev said the absence of formal Soviet-Israeli ties was "unnatural."

Doves such as Peres have cautiously welcomed Gorbachev's initiatives, seeing the new flexibility on issues such as a Middle East peace conference as part of a trend that ultimately could lead to full negotiations with moderate Arab states.

Hard-line forces, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, are more skeptical and pessimistic. They note that, during the Assad visit, Gorbachev also restated Moscow's old formula that relations could be restored only after Israel withdraws from the occupied territories. The Soviets, they contend, have not really changed on issues such as the emigration of Soviet Jews, and initiatives such as the international conference are a trap set to be sprung on Israel by the Soviets and their Arab allies.

Whatever new popularity Gorbachev enjoys in Israel does not come at Ronald Reagan's expense. But there is a strong feeling, official as well as popular, that the Soviets are energetic and creative, while the Americans are stale and exhausted.

Those juxtaposed images are cause for deeper concern elsewhere in the world, where Moscow's new poses at home and abroad are seen as a real and present danger, designed simply to put a smile on the same old expansionist goals. In the Far East, where arms control initiatives and the Persian Gulf war have much less immediacy, little evidence is seen of a substantive change in Soviet objectives.

"We have experienced many changes of Soviet diplomacy," said an official in the Japanese Foreign Ministry, "and whenever there is a plan of economic reform, such as in the Brezhnev detente, they need agreeable circumstances with the outside world. But actually there was enormous strengthening of Soviet military forces under the cover of detente or the Helsinki accord. We don't want to see history repeat itself."

The Soviets under Gorbachev have made some effort to improve relations with Japan. Shevardnadze traveled to Tokyo last year to reopen peace talks abandoned in 1976, allowing a resumption of trips by Japanese to family graves in the so-called Northern Territories. But these four islands north of Hokkaido, occupied by the Soviets since World War II and still claimed by Japan, remain the primary sticking point between Tokyo and Moscow.

South Korea, where distrust of Russia is older than this century and anticommunism is almost a state religion, feels even more strongly. "They note that Soviet military support to North Korea has increased considerably in the last few years," said a non-American western diplomat in Seoul.

The Koreans believe that the Soviet Union's basically hostile intentions have not changed, but they worry that Gorbachev's new style will be too effective at the expense of their own ally in Washington.

In Western Europe, Gorbachev's high level of popularity is seen as a result both of his own charm offensive and the fear and dislike of U.S. policy instilled during Reagan's first term.

"Gorbachev is very popular" in West Germany, said Eberhard Shulz, an expert on the Soviet Union at Bonn University. "People here are accustomed to hearing the U.S. side talk about 'Star Wars.' For ordinary people, Gorbachev is talking about peace, and Reagan is talking about war. This is a very dangerous development."

For the moment, West European leaders are prepared to take Gorbachev's peace blandishments at face value and still consider internal Soviet reforms a net plus for the West.

What the West needs to maintain, said a British official, is "the old sort of double-vigilance formula: to spot real change when it happens, but be vigilant about not being deceived by changes of style rather than substance. Their foreign policy hasn't changed much," he said, "but their tactics are much cleverer.

"We've got to expect the Russians to go on finding things to say and do that will enhance their reputation for being good guys," said another British official. "It's not just Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, it's a whole line of people out there." Washington Post correspondents Edward Cody in Paris, Robert J. McCartney in Bonn, Margaret Shapiro in Tokyo, Fred Hiatt in Seoul, Daniel Southerland in Beijing, Glenn Frankel in Jerusalem, Patrick E. Tyler in Cairo, Herbert H. Denton in Ottawa and Bradley Graham in Buenos Aires and special correspondent Nilova Roy in New Delhi contributed to this report.