Boston — The United States pipeline sanctions against the Soviet Union aren't worth the fuss.
That's one conclusion of a new study, ''East-West Trade at a Crossroads,'' sponsored by the Trilateral Commission.
Sanctions, the study admitted, may slow down the pipeline construction. ''But the more serious consequence is the divisive impact on the Western alliance. . . .''
Moreover, the study concludes: ''There is not now, nor does there appear to be in prospect, an undue dependence by Western Europe on Soviet energy supplies. . . . The already existing West European Natural Gas Agreement among the principal users, which also includes such user-suppliers as the Netherlands and Norway (though unfortunately the United Kingdom has not yet agreed to participate), is capable of providing through the 'grid' a mutual safety net, immediately available for all participants if an interruption should occur.''
What makes this thorough study important is that it is not based on an unrealistic view of the Soviet Union and its East European allies. It recognizes the fact that ''active rivalry'' will continue between the communist East and free enterprise West. Indeed, the report suggests some areas for hardening Western positions.
For instance, the three authors - Robert V. Roosa, a former undersecretary of the US Treasury; Michiya Matsukawa, a former senior adviser to the Japanese Finance Ministry; and Armin Gutowski, president of the Hamburg Institute for Economic Research - recommend a formalization through international treaties of the so-called CoCom gentlemen's agreement, which regulates Western strategic exports to the Soviet bloc.
In other words, the study attempts to find a pragmatic balance on the issue of East-West trade. Though naming no names, it indirectly criticizes some hawks in the Reagan administration who would attempt to use economic actions to weaken or punish the Soviet Union. In effect, the study says that such sanctions have not worked to change Soviet political policies.
For example, looking at the partial embargo on agricultural exports by the Carter administration in 1980, a move designed to punish the Soviet Union for its move into Afghanistan, the study finds: ''With some delay, and inconvenience , the Soviet Union replaced from other foreign sources all but an estimated 2.5 million metric tons of the embargoed US grain shipments. In effect, it gained another 1.5 million metric tons by reducing its own shipments to Eastern Europe as the United States increased its sales to those countries.''
That means the US shot itself in the foot with its ''grain weapon.''
Reviewing further the gas pipeline issue, the study notes: ''Rather than dramatically increasing Soviet hard currency earnings later in the '80s, as US officials seem to fear, the income from gas sales will probably be only barely sufficient to offset the reduction of earnings resulting from declining oil exports. In real terms, Soviet hard currency income from all energy exports may actually be lower in 1990 than the $16-$17 billion of peak earnings reached in 1980 and 1981. Gas sales through the pipelines appear to provide the Soviets the best, and perhaps the only, means of sustaining the level of real imports from the West prevailing in the early '80s.''
The Trilateral Commission is a group of prominent citizens from the US, Western Europe, and Japan. Its members included President Carter and many high officials in his administration. Some trilateralists occupy top jobs in the Reagan administration also.
So, its suggestions may have some clout.
Referring to the grain and pipeline sanctions, the study says these ''have already imposed enough cost and disarray in the West to call for a stepping back and reappraisal in the Trilateral countries.
''It would certainly be constructive if ways could be found to avoid the confusion which has characterized the spontaneous headlong rushes by the United States into sanctions which its allies have been unable fully to support - and which became rather futile without widespread participation.''
The authors suggest a clarification of the ''rules of the contest.'' There should, they say, be a coordinated plan of approach, considering in advance the kinds of conditions which most countries agree could justify the imposition of deliberate restraints on trade with the communist countries.
''Perhaps . . . the participating countries could try to agree on the kinds of thresholds at which some consultation and action would be triggered, and on the arrangements that might then be appropriate for burden-sharing among the participants when the sanctions become costly.''
Such a consensus on sanctions, the study maintains, might ''by its very existence, become a powerful force for bringing about negotiations in crisis periods, thereby averting a triggering of the actual use of sanctions.''
The study suggests that financial sanctions - cutting the East off from new credits - ''might be the most powerful lever available for exerting economic pressure on the USSR,'' if the Western countries can agree on a need for action. But the study also warns that Polish default on its debts would remove this financial lever.
Whatever, this balanced and intelligent report should be must reading in the White House and the State Department.
East-West trade Percent of trade for major industrial nations (1974-1979 averages) Country Exports Imports United States 2.6% 0.7% Japan 3.5% 2.2% France 4.3% 3.0% West Germany 7.0% 5.9% European Economic Community total 4.6% 3.8% Source: US Department of Commerce compilation of UN data