THE British have a reputation for ``muddling through'' their foreign policy crises. What this means is that they do not apply the directness of the Americans to a crisis, but cloak it with ambiguity that affords them more room for maneuver. This carefully calculated image of disheveled charm in their diplomacy often disguises brilliance, and a ruthless pursuit of national interest.
The present British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, is a splendid personification of this image. For the most part he is a man of delicious British understatement, rarely rattled, rarely strident.
Asked by a reporter, for example, why Iran embarks on a series of ventures judged insane by the outside world, he replies: ``I think this underlines that various agencies in their government are taking actions not conducive to projecting a united front.'' Stripped of understatement, what that means is that the Iranians can't get their act together.
But despite the graciousness, he has a mind like a trap, and a comprehensive view of the world, and so a number of journalists were quick to breakfast with him in New York this week to check out his mood.
It is upbeat about the principal topic on the foreign policy agenda - the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West. It is more glum about immediate events in the Gulf, where a British ship was attacked by the Iranians this week.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was one of the first Western leaders to meet the new Soviet general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, and she quickly decided that he was a man with whom she could do business.
The British now believe that the deal the United States and the USSR have just cut on reducing intermediate nuclear weapons justifies that judgment.
That does not mean they like the Soviet system, or are without distrust of it. Indeed, Sir Geoffrey has three ``laws'' for dealing with the Soviets:
``Play it long, cool, and firm.'' In other words, take the long view, and keep your guard up.
Be ``doubly vigilant - don't confuse style for substance.'' That, presumably is a reference to the new Soviet image projected by Mr. Gorbachev.
But be alert to real opportunities, and when your negotiations do achieve something, don't belittle it.
The latter is in line with the British view that the recent accord on intermediate missiles is a real breakthrough, and a victory for the West.
What the Soviets have finally agreed to - dismantling their SS-20s, along with other missiles - is the deal NATO set out to achieve in 1981, Sir Geoffrey says. He ponders what recriminations must be going on in the Kremlin over whether that deployment, now about to be abandoned, was really worth it.
With the prospect of a nuclear arsenal rundown, the Soviet conventional threat becomes more ominous. European nations are going to have to do more in this area, he says. The high cost of weaponry will mean more joint programs, more joint purchases.
Of course NATO ``creaks and groans,'' but the ``important thing is that we have held together.'' And though there are scare stories about the decoupling of the US from Europe, they are ``just plain daft.'' He displays true British grit about the outlook. ``The fact is that Western security depends on cohesion between Europe and the United States,'' and that will continue.
On Iranian actions in the Gulf, he momentarily loses his composure. This week's attack on a British ship was ``barbaric and cowardly.'' But the British are responding with firm steps. They think the Americans were ``well within their rights'' to attack a mine-laying Iranian warship in international waters. The Iranians were guilty of ``reckless criminality.''
Then the civilized smile returns, and it's on to another meeting, leaving the impression that although British power has diminished, the moral weight of Britain in foreign affairs is still a plus.