In one arena this past weekend, in the rarefied atmosphere of the economic summit at Versailles, the primacy of the United States as the noncommunist world's superpower has been demonstrated for all to see.
President Reagan, moving with affable ease among the splendors of Louis XIV's masterpiece, has been accepted by his six associates there as the most powerful of them all.
But in another arena, the grimmer one where men are being killed in the world's two immediate crisis spots--the South Atlantic and the Middle East--the frustrations, even the impotence of the superpower role for the US, have been demonstrated with equal clarity.
Ironically, the frustrations of the US in the South Atlantic and Middle East result primarily in each case from its having to deal with a friend or ally - Britain in the first, Israel in the second. It would like both to behave differently at this moment.
US interests would be better served in the Americas if British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, having encircled the remaining Argentines on the Falklands at Port Stanley, spared them the complete humiliation of unconditional surrender. This Mrs. Thatcher says is impossible after the price paid by the British to retake the invaded islands.
In the Middle East, the US would have preferred Israel not to have responded in Lebanon with such massive force to the attempted assassination June 4 of the Israeli Ambassador in London. Israeli aircraft pounded Palestinian targets in Lebanon for the third day running June 5, in defiance of a unanimous United Nations Security Council call for a cease-fire. The Israeli Army also crossed into Lebanon June 6.
These moves will enormously complicate implementation of the US peace initiatives in the Middle East foreshadowed in a speech in Chicago last month by Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. These included moves on both the stabilization of the situation in Lebanon and getting the Palestine autonomy talks revived between Israel and Egypt.
In apparent preparation for this, the US began wooing an ever-suspicious Israel with almost unprecedented largess during the closing days of May. First, the US authorized the single biggest arms transfer ever to Israel: 75 F-16 fighter bombers, worth $2.5 billion. Second, a big proportion of US economic and military aid to Israel was transferred from loans to grants (or gifts). Third, the US indicated it would not stand in the way of an increase of Israeli arms exports this year. And fourth, positive noises were made in Washington about reviving parts of the memorandum on strategic understanding between the two countries, suspended after Israel annexed the Golan Heights last year.
Despite the fury of Israeli retaliatory action, the soft US line appears to continue--presumably because the Reagan administration cannot afford to alienate Israel with intolerable US pressure before the carefully orchestrated and well-thought-out US-Middle East initiatives ever get off the ground.
Special envoy Philip C. Habib was summoned from Washington to Paris to confer with Mr. Reagan June 6. Mr. Habib negotiated the 10-month-old cease-fire agreement in Lebanon last summer. He will reportedly return to the area in the next few days - a move spelled out in Mr. Haig's Chicago speech, but without a date attached.
Mr. Begin is due in the US later this month and is to confer with Mr. Reagan. That meeting is still on. The US had hoped to coax Egypt's Hosni Mubarak here as well in an effort to revive the stalled Palestine talks.
These are blocked by Israel's insistence that from now on Jerusalem be a rotating site for the talks--unacceptable to Egypt as long as Israel maintains its incorporation of east Jerusalem (with its large Palestinian population) into Israel. Anywhere else in Israel proper is acceptable to the Egyptians.
But as the latest round of violence began, reports were coming from Egypt that Mr. Mubarak was reluctant to come to Washington for a meeting with Mr. Begin. Mr. Mubarak June 6 condemned the use of force between Palestinians and Israelis and said the autonomy talks ''already face problems, and, of course, the situation in Lebanon will affect the prospect of a comprehensive peace in the area.''
The US dilemma over its loyalty to Britain surfaced June 4, just after an American veto had been cast in the United Nations Security Council (alongside a British veto) to block passage of a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in the Falklands--but without a specific demand for Argentine withdrawal, Britain's minimum requirement.
Less than an hour after the US veto, instructions reached the American delegation to change the plan for a veto to an abstention--but the new directive was too late. US Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick announced nevertheless what had happened. The attempted switch considerably upset the British.
British officials are now making light of the US fumble. But it will hardly help Mr. Reagan with British public opinion when he arrives in London June 7 for a visit with the Queen and an address in Parliament before he goes on to the NATO summit in Bonn later in the week.
British public opinion has come to identify Mrs. Kirkpatrick and Secretary Haig with the two camps--pro-Argentine and pro-British--that have tried to tilt US policy one way or the other since the Argentine invasion of the Falklands early in April. To Mrs. Kirkpatrick's sometimes public irritation, Mr. Haig and the pro-British, pro-European school have repeatedly won out.