LONDON, JULY 5 -- Matters of war and peace dominated the discussion and the headlines, but there also was room at the NATO summit today for skirmishes over principle, pride and pork-barrel politics.

By custom, the 16 leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and their spokesmen present this gathering as an unmitigated triumph of solidarity and reason on all sides. But the muffled sounds of scuffling were audible in the background on this opening day, and once again the scufflers were the Americans and their favorite prickly allies, the French.

The issue at stake is not likely to decide mankind's fate. It involves where a small new international bureaucracy will make its headquarters in Europe. A few jobs and a lot of pride of place were on the line in the argument, which was waged with politesse by both sides.

The dis-accord centers on a letter President Bush sent to his NATO partners last week suggesting, among other things, that the alliance specify at this meeting the location and function of three new offices to be established by the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The president proposed that a small new permanent secretariat for CSCE be set up in Prague, an electoral commission for Eastern Europe be sited in Budapest and a conflict-prevention center be opened in either Berlin or Warsaw. Bush's proposal was apparently meant as a gesture to the East Europeans, who have expressed strong interest in becoming involved in the CSCE since the overthrow of their former Communist regimes.

But to French President Francois Mitterrand, it bordered on waving a red flag. For reasons even they have difficulty explaining, the French have fought a long and unsuccessful battle to make NATO symbolically subordinate to CSCE. Now here was Bush proposing, in effect, exactly the opposite.

Bush's proposal also would inadvertently undercut the authority of the 12-nation European Community, which likes to carve the cake of bureaucratic patronage on the old continent to suit its members' wishes. With strong backing from West Germany, Vienna, the capital of neutral Austria, had emerged as the strong community favorite for the CSCE secretariat that Bush wanted to put in Czechoslovakia.

Mitterrand said none of this directly to Bush in his frosty response. But the whine content of the French letter was high enough to cause Bush to reply quickly with what a French spokesman today called a "very friendly letter" to Mitterrand. He called the French leader "Old Chap" and suggested, as the French read it, that there would be no problem over all this at the London summit.

This allowed both Bush and Mitterrand to take the high road today at the heads of government meeting. What Bush apparently neglected to tell Mitterrand was that his secretary of state, James A. Baker III, would be pushing in the separate foreign ministers' meeting here to get Prague, Budapest and the Berlin/Warsaw option mentioned in the final communique.

In his briefing, Mitterrand's spokesman, Hubert Vedrine, emphasized that France saw this as a matter of principle. The U.S. ideas were "too detailed," he said. The United States must not push NATO into preempting the work of a preparatory conference that meets in Vienna next week to draw up plans for a historic CSCE summit meeting in November, at which the new shape of Europe is to be blessed. Vedrine did not need to tell his audience that the CSCE summit will be held in Paris.

It is at the November meeting that the CSCE is to be transformed -- presumably under Mitterrand's guidance, as the French see it -- from its present nebulous state into a permanent body that will provide political, economic and security links for the United States, Canada and the Soviet Union to all European nations except Albania, which has refused to join.

The Helsinki 35-nation summit in 1975 launched the current CSCE machinery, which periodically reviews observance by its members of human rights, economic and travel freedom and the unrestricted flow of information. But since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the rush toward German reunification, the CSCE has been mentioned frequently by Europeans as an organization that eventually could replace or subsume NATO and the Warsaw Pact as a means of keeping the peace.

The United States has refused to endorse the proposals of West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and others who want to give the CSCE significant security functions. Washington believes that the fact that small states like Malta and neutrals like Sweden will have a theoretically equal say with the United States and Soviet Union make an effective CSCE impossible.

The U.S. proposals for a small professional secretariat suggest a change by the Bush administration from its initial assessment that the CSCE would always act as a talk shop; but American officials made clear today that they will continue to resist grander schemes for making it the European equivalent of the League of Nations.