By suggesting direct financial aid to the faltering Soviet Union, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has underscored a dilemma for the Western democracies and for President Bush as he seeks to assert U.S. leadership at the Houston economic summit in 10 days, according to U.S. and European officials and outside experts.

The dilemma is this: No one wants to ignore Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's economic troubles, but showering him with economic aid may not help him, either. While many in the West are eager to see Gorbachev succeed at his economic reforms, there is growing fear that the Soviet economy is hopelessly crumbling and any resources sent to Moscow would be wasted or counterproductive, possibly even stalling Gorbachev's drive toward reform.

The United States has agreed to put the topic of Soviet economic aid on the Houston summit agenda. The administration, hoping to avoid a squabble among the allies, is searching for alternative measures that would satisfy the desire of Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand to show some initiative toward Moscow, according to well-informed officials. However, the United States and Britain want to avoid any large-scale financial commitment, they said.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday that the West "could be a force for good in moving the Soviet Union to take the actions required to convert that massive command economy to a market economy." But, Baker said, before the West can move, "clearly there has to be" some "definition or presentation of what's required."

Options being considered include a joint study or delegation to Moscow from the West, or promises of stepped-up technical advice about restructuring the Soviet economy, the officials said.

An official involved in summit planning said Bush has "shifted a little bit. He said initially that we needed to see a greater commitment to structural reform and without that, it would be just money down a sieve. Now he's genuinely willing to listen to the arguments and what his counterparts say. On an economic basis, he hasn't changed, but he's saying maybe there is a political argument."

In a recent letter to allied leaders, Kohl outlined a two-pronged emergency Soviet economic aid package designed in part to ease Soviet concerns about a unified Germany within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The first part is $3 billion in credit to help Moscow meet overdue debt payments to foreign creditors and suppliers. Kohl announced this part of the package earlier this week; about half the credit may be used to pay off West German companies doing business with Moscow.

Kohl's letter also suggested a $15 billion aid package directed more generally at helping Gorbachev in the transition to a market economy. Mitterrand has endorsed the idea, but at a meeting of the European Community leaders in Dublin this week, the proposal ran into opposition from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the leaders decided instead to order an urgent study of Soviet economic needs.

Top U.S. officials and several West European diplomats said in interviews that the Dublin decision would take some pressure off the Houston summit to produce a specific proposal. But these officials and outside specialists said the question of what the West should do about Soviet economic aid is likely to be the dominant topic in Houston.

Michael Mandelbaum, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Kohl proposal "does put pressure on us because if we don't do something we will be left out. This is the New Europe and an early test of whether we're going to play a role." Mandelbaum said aid to Moscow can be justified as an inducement for letting East Germany go and to help Gorbachev cope with an economy in "free fall." He added, "If we believe in him we at least ought to buy him some time."

But, he cautioned, the economic aid could be counterproductive, removing any incentive for difficult reform measures. "Let's wait for the reforms -- that is the economically sensible position," he said.

Marshall I. Goldman, associate director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, said the Kohl proposal also puts pressure on limited U.S. resources. "There is no doubt the Soviets do need enormous help. You're only going to get the peace dividend if there is some kind of stability" in the Soviet Union, he said. "In his heart of hearts, Bush would like to help. But how do you do that when there's nothing in the till? That's the big dilemma."

Moreover, Goldman said, the Soviet economic collapse is unique and Moscow may not know how to use aid from the West. While Western-style economies have many stabilizers to cushion a collapse, he said, "In the case of the Soviet Union, none of that will work . . . . We've never seen a Soviet-style economy collapse and we've never seen what happens when it begins to disintegrate."

Top Bush officials have offered many reasons why the time is not ripe for direct Soviet aid. Baker has called on Moscow to halt arms and supply shipments to Cuba, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney said this week that the Soviet Union must further reduce the share of its economy devoted to defense.

Another consideration is the political difficulty of persuading Congress to approve aid to Moscow when foreign aid resources are already stretched thin. The Soviets have yet to qualify for most favored nation trading status by passing a liberalized emigration law, and other legal restraints would prevent immediate direct economic aid.

"It's hard for Americans to understand why $5 billion a year {in Soviet aid} going to Cuba can't be used to help the Soviet people," Bush said in an interview this week with journalists from the industrial democracies. "If you want to save $5 billion, there's a good way to start."

Only a few months ago, Bush harshly criticized a proposal by House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to provide food aid to the Soviet Union. Now, said a senior U.S. official, "I don't know how we explain it, when we say the Soviets don't have a plan or a clue as to how they are going about economic reconstruction. I haven't a clue how we would explain it."

In an interview, Gephardt said he still believes the West should extend a hand to Gorbachev, linking aid to progress in Soviet reforms. Gephardt called for such "reinforcing" actions by the West as loans and technical assistance, to follow Soviet reforms in monetary affairs, banking, privatization and prices. "I think it is in our deep self-interest," he said.

"We ought to be leading and helping to put together a concerted and cohesive response to all this on the part of the Western countries," Gephardt said, "rather than holding back, or not participating, or simply saying, 'Good luck to the rest of you, we hope it works, we'll see you later.' "