The Geneva summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has been greeted in Western Europe with a sigh of relief. Officials here are glad that the leaders of the world's two major powers are speaking directly to one another again. But, beside that, officials of major West European governments are expressing caution on two scores.
They are anxious that the public may expect too much from the Geneva meeting. And they are concerned that the two superpowers may start moving toward bilateral agreements that could jeopardize elements of West European security.
The public opinion factor is probably most important in West Germany. The center-right government in Bonn has succeeded in pushing through the deployment of United States-built, NATO-sponsored missiles. But West Germany remains acutely sensitive about its front-line position in East-West relations. Any US-Soviet summit is bound to raise hopes of an easing of tensions that, as well as reducing West German fears about military vulnerability, would open the way for increased contacts with Eastern Europe.
It is not surprising, then, that Bonn has sought to claim some of the credit for the summit taking place. It is saying that its firm position on missile deployment helped convince Moscow that it was dealing with a united West and could not play on divisions between the NATO allies.
The difficulty for Chancellor Helmut Kohl is that, if the summit does not produce measurable progress, West Germans may feel let down. Even worse for the chancellor would be a carefully angled Soviet propaganda drive after the summit, seeking to put the blame for lack of progress on Mr. Reagan's shoulders.
The opposition Social Democrats make no secret of their belief that Reagan should be ready with concessions in Geneva. Dr. Kohl could find it politically difficult at home to defend what might be seen as an over-tough, nationalistic stance by the President at the summit.
Despite such concerns, West German officials are generally optimistic about the summit. Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher says he expects the summit to provide an impetus for a wide East-West dialogue. Mr. Genscher, who is skeptical about Reagan's program of research into space-based defense, hopes the summit will mark the start of a retreat by Washington and Moscow from the prospect of an arms race in space. Other Foreign Ministry officials here think regular dialogue between Washington and Mosco w should be possible after the Geneva meeting.
In that perspective, West German and other West European officials will be quite content if Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev do not get down to details. A summit devoted to establishing contact and producing good ``atmospherics'' would, in the West European view, be quite satisfactory. Reports from Washington warning against expecting concrete progress at the summit have, therefore, not shaken the West Europeans.
One leading West German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, reported on Nov. 13 that Chancellor Kohl appeared to have received reports that Gorbachev's position within the Soviet hierarchy was not as strong as had been assumed. The Soviet leader would reportedly face problems in pushing specific agreements made with Reagan very far past the Soviet leadership.
If the atmospherics in Geneva are as good as they hope, West European governments may well start worrying about whether Washington and Moscow are getting on too well.
The fear of a US-Soviet understanding which reduces the attention paid to West European interests is an old one. The Bonn government does not appear particularly worried at the moment that such an understanding could affect its security. It sees the US commitment here as a basic policy element that would not be affected by the pursuit of mutual US and Soviet interests.
But France and Britain are in a different position because of their possession of nuclear forces.
As might have been expected, President Franois Mitterrand of France has been the most outspoken. At a press conference after talks with Kohl in Bonn on Nov. 9, Mr. Mitterrand emphasized that France was not involved in nuclear arms talks and would therefore insist on speaking for itself.
The French fear is that their nuclear force will become a bargaining chip in US-Soviet arms negotiations. They insist that their missiles remain outside such talks, since they are intended only for France's national defense.
As one French official put it: ``We wanted an American-Soviet top-level dialogue to resume. We hope the two leaders will eventually move toward an arms balance at as low a level as possible.
``We expect no miracles from Geneva,'' he said, ``though we hope the gap between the two men will be reduced. But -- and this is a vital but -- we will be very watchful to make sure there is no attempt to include our nuclear forces in any bargaining.''
In London, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rejected earlier this month a proposal from Gorbachev to enter direct nuclear arms reduction talks. But she said she would consider discussing weapons levels in the general context of improving East-West relations.
A British foreign affairs minister, Baroness Young, told Parliament that the Soviet disarmament proposals were unacceptably one-sided, but were a step in the right direction and contained elements on which the Geneva arms negotiatiors might be able to build.
Apart from the major issue of arms control, the outcome of the summit could affect West European countries in other ways. France is keen to develop bilateral relations with the Soviet Union and will be reviewing the best ways to do this in the light of the summit outcome.
Whether or not the East German leader, Erich Honecker, pays a long delayed visit to West Germany could hinge on the post-Geneva climate.
West European governments hope Reagan will bear their views in mind when he gets down to talking in Geneva. They know what he and the Soviet leader say could have a deep influence on their own futures.