The Reagan administration's latest effort to protect the troubled US steel industry is expected to cost West Europeans more jobs and profits. Yet few experts here believe that the decision heralds a return to protectionism in the United States - a dangerous trend that would almost certainly spread to other countries and threaten, even halt, economic recovery.
Washington's decision to impose new tariffs and quotas on imports of specialty steel, announced July 5, has been vigorously protested by the countries most affected: West Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, and several other steel-producing nations.
Last week foreign ministers from the 10 European Community countries took the lead. After a meeting here, they declared that not only were the import-restricting measures incompatible with commitments made at the Williamsburg summit meeting to begin dismantling trade barriers as recovery began, but that under international trading rules the EC would seek ''compensation.'' This compensation, which it says it expects to win, would take the form of lower tariffs on other EC products exported to the US market.
But despite this reaction, analysts here warn of a need to keep the US move in perspective.
The European steel affected by the new US tariffs and quotas (about 90,000 metric tons a year) sells for about $150 million. This represents less than one-quarter of 1 percent of all trade conducted between the Community and the US last year.
Trade analysts, moreover, point to the virtually uninterrupted rise in overall EC-US trade since the Community was formed 26 years ago. Only in 1980-81 did it decline - and then only slightly. Last year, total trade between the US and the Community reached a record $85 billion, up 10 percent over 1981.
Some trade experts note that despite warnings of creeping protectionism, the state of EC-US trade relations in many ways reflects the wider world scene. Even during the recent sharp recession, world trade has continued to grow - or at least to hold its own.
''Warnings of protectionism have spread,'' said one EC official, ''but protectionism itself has not.''
According to the Geneva-based world trade watchdog, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the volume of trade in the world rose between 1973 and 1981 by an average of 4 percent a year, despite two oil-price shocks and the current recession. This compares poorly with the 8.5 percent average annual growth in the 1963-73 period. But it is still remarkable.
Several months ago, GATT announced with some fanfare that world trade had declined in 1981-82 (by an estimated 2 percent) for the first time since 1975 and for only the second time since 1963. A closer look at what really happened, however, only underscores the fact that protectionism has not taken hold.
While total trade declined in 1981-82, trade in farm products actually increased by 1 percent. Gains in that sector were offset, however, by a slight drop in trade in manufactured goods and, more important, a severe drop (of 7 percent) in ''minerals'' - i.e., crude and refined oil.
In the coming months, politicians and others will continue to warn against the dangers of protectionism even as suffering domestic industries clamor for more of it. But few countries will succumb to the pressure, experts agree. They point out that too much rests on healthy trade for governments to throw its economic benefits away by erecting barriers to imports - barriers that would be easier to erect than to tear down.
Last to move toward protectionism will be the US and the EC - the world's largest trading blocs. For the EC, lost trade would be particularly damaging. The Community is the world's largest exporting power, with sales outside the bloc representing nearly 20 percent of all world exports. Together, exports and imports are the equivalent of one-quarter of the Community's gross national product, that is, total output of goods and services. The figure for the US is nearly 20 percent.
Last week Sir Geoffrey Howe, the British foreign secretary, said that conversations with administration officials in Washington earlier this month had convinced him that a ''lurch'' toward protectionism was not foremost in the minds of US officials.
''The Americans did emphasize,'' he said, ''that it (the imposition of new tariffs and quotas on specialty steel) was a single action in relation to a single proposition.''