Washington — ''The agony of doing the summits is exceeded only by the cost of not doing them.''
Thus a top US official summarized the pros and cons of the annual summit exercise, engaging the time and talents of hundreds of bureaucrats who log thousands of miles of travel to lay the groundwork for the great event.
That event is the meeting, at some beautiful spot in one another's lands, of seven of the West's most powerful leaders, to talk with--and often at--each other about the world's problems. This year's meeting begins June 4, at Versailles, France.
Seldom in the history of these economic summits, which began at Rambouillet, France, in 1975, have the presidents and prime ministers, preaching always the virtue of coordination and cooperation, been more sharply critical of each other's policies.
''Headlines at this year's summit,'' says an American official who has attended every one, ''will be captured by crossfire over high interest rates and European laments that Reaganomics is partly to blame.
''More meaningful,'' he says, ''in fact, the most meaningful outcome there could be at Versailles,would be a commitment at the top to making the trading system work. That system is now at a crossroads.''
Americans and Europeans try to deflect, sometimes to each other's shores, a flood of Japanese imports. Washington, prodded by the ailing US steel industry, charges Europe with dumping steel below cost in the US.
The Common Market subsidizes farm exports and erects tariff walls against foreign agricultural products. The US limits the import of Japanese cars and foreign steel.
World trade, reports the International Monetary Fund, slipped lower in 1981 --the ''first annual decline in the dollar value of world trade since 1958.''
One result is unemployment--especially among youth--steadily rising in the US and across Europe, burdening welfare systems and sowing the potential for social unrest.
''Behind the tensions,'' says the US summit official quoted above, ''lies the failure of the advanced industrial nations to adjust their economies, to restructure their industries, to meet changing conditions.
''Now,'' the official says, ''the Japanese are trying to protect their market , seal it off, from US high technology--notably semiconductors--until the Japanese develop their own technology to compete.''
Such problems and others give bite and thrust to the work of the bureaucrats preparing for the summit - the ''agony'' of which the American official speaks. Why, then, hold the summits at all?
Because, officials agree, the affair has acquired so much momentum that to cancel it would be an indication that the fabric of cooperation was wearing thin.
''Past summits,'' says C. Fred Bergsten, a summit planner in the Carter administration, ''sensitized the political leaders to the political and personal concerns of the others. Summits make it easier for a leader to go home and urge an unpopular step on his parliament.''
What matters is not so much what the leaders say in their formal statements and communique, which are likely to be bland, but rather the implied--or explicit--word to their bureaucrats to hammer away at the problems that divide them.
''Without that political commitment at the top,'' says a Reagan administration official, ''the specific problems besetting each country--steel imports, farm subsidies, and the like--overwhelm the bureaucrats.''
Veteran summiteers, American and European, cite two persistent themes running through summit history. One is the European desire, as a diplomat put it, ''to educate the American president, whoever he may be, on the impact of the US economy on the rest of the world.''
Indeed, says the diplomat, the summit process was born in 1975, during the depths of the oil-price recession, when Valery Giscard d'Estaing, then president of France, and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt believed that Americans had to curb their voracious appetite for imported oil and that President Gerald Ford had to be so advised.
The second persistent theme, says Henry Owen, a top diplomat under President Carter, is the hunger among foreign leaders for the US to take charge.
''Europeans may be unhappy with Americans,'' says Mr. Owen, ''but they still look to the US for proposals, another word for leadership. And, if the US makes a proposal, in the end the others, nine times out of 10, will go along with the substance of it.''