Washington is very close to having the cart before the horse this week on matters of budget and nuclear missile negotiation. Fifteen months ago those two master themes of this decade seemed to be moving in proper sequence. President Reagan had made a bold chess move with his zero-option proposal after the beginning of a major defense budget buildup.
The American President had then prepared a position from which he could announce that his toughness had forced the Soviets to bargain seriously on nuclear reduction. From that, in turn, could have come a willingness to cut the defense budget - and massive budget deficits - once a European (and perhaps even an intercontinental) missile reduction deal had been struck.
In that sequence the American domestic economy could have been spared considerable red ink after the supposed ''window of vulnerability'' on defense had been very visibly closed.
But a year of confrontation over Poland intervened. Arms talks were pushed aside. Anti-missile forces in Europe, which had been partly neutralized by the fall 1981 initiative, regained momentum. And so this week, Vice-President George Bush was back in Europe making the same chess move 15 months later. But the timing was dramatically reversed.
This time the need to stop the flow of red ink in Washington was so urgent that, even as Mr. Bush offered a Reagan-Andropov summit on elimination of nuclear missiles in Europe, the American Congress was making it clear that defense cuts would almost certainly be made before the nuclear bargain was struck.
Those who have followed the spy novels of John le Carre may be tempted to see Karla (the KGB master spy) checkmating Smiley (his Western counterpart) as former CIA head George Bush struggles to overcome the missiles-in-place bargaining tactics of former KGB head Yuri Andropov.
But balance-of-power politics is not spy fiction. And there are more variables to the equation than are seen in the surface rhetoric. The outlook is not so grim for the West as it might seem. For instance, Mr. Andropov has regained the right to bankroll the Polish government and has not so far disposed of or reduced his draining subsidies to Cuba, Vietnam, and the Afghan war.
Beyond that, there is the force of public opinion. The very polls that indicate growing European anxiety over emplacement of Pershing II and cruise missiles also continue to show the Western European majority firmly behind the Western alliance.
And on the other Soviet border, China - where opinion polls are not a factor - Mr. Andropov cannot consider that he has made any real progress at protecting his eastern flank. There has never been any formal declaration of an American military umbrella protecting China. But Peking continues to want such an umbrella in order to allow China to divert a larger portion of its resources to modernization of its industrial and agricultural base. And as long as that desire persists, the tactical fencing over Taiwan and textiles that enlivens headlines from time to time is likely to have little long-term effect.
Against this background, Secretary of State George Shultz's low-key visit to Peking is likely to prove generally successful.
If Mr. Bush and Mr. Shultz stave off disaffection in Europe and the Far East, will Washington have much breathing room to turn back to its home economy?
Both the world policeman (the US) and counter-policeman (USSR) pay heavily for the leverage they exercise in the world. And the cost of leverage today may result in reduced leverage tomorrow. On the US side this is measured in continuing worry about a trade deficit ($43 billion in 1982) that rivals the internal budget deficit as a source of concern.
Traditionally the role of world policeman has been something of a self-funding proposition. Trade has followed the flag. And a favorable export balance has helped fund the gunboats.
But the tradition is warped in today's world. Japan, for instance, cannot (and would not be welcome to) help protect China while Peking modernizes. The US is more suited to that role. But Japan is just as likely as the US to reap the trade benefits in China, with the exception of offshore oil-drilling technology.
It appears likely, then, that the US Congress will proceed inexorably on its course of cutting the defense budget well beyond the token cuts offered by Secretary Weinberger. The legislators seem determined to do so even if the cart of defense-cutting goes before the horse of nuclear missile agreement.
In a display of lithographs by the mid-19th-century caricaturist Daumier, three cartoons hang near each other. One shows two leaders outside the door of the Disarmament Bureau doing an elaborate Alphonse-Gaston act. The caption reads: ''Apres vous . . .'' - the Reagan-Andropov performance anticipated by more than a century.
The next litho shows the Russian czar straddling the Eurasian landmass from Prussia to his Asian front. The earth splits beneath his stretched legs. He looks worried about having a foot on each front.
The third drawing shows Father Time staring into the muzzle of a cannon. The caption is terse: a simple question mark.
Mr. Weinberger, testifying to Congress on the defense budget, said: ''I don't know how much time we have. . . .'' That was his stark version of the window-of-vulnerability argument.
But Mr. Bush in Europe echoed US arms negotiator Paul Nitze in saying that under the American zero missile demand lay flexibility to negotiate a treaty with Moscow. And Mr. Shultz seems to be succeeding in mending fences in Japan and China. Furthermore, there were signs this week that the Arab big guns of OPEC might be moving to carry the day with a modestly lower oil price which would help Western and third world economies without becoming a runaway price crash that could damage the international banking system.
Daumier's question mark at the cannon's mouth has not been erased. But the superpower players - the US, USSR, Western Europe, Japan, and China - seem to be willing and able to keep military and economic frictions within controllable limits.
Diplomatic columnist Joseph C. Harsch is on vacation.