Bonn prefers quieter diplomacy than Washington now is practicing in announcing economic sanctions on Poland and the Soviet Union. But it is not yet clear whether this US-West German difference will explode into a major row.
If a tough right-wing United States viewpoint prevails - such as that of American columnist William Safire, who charges Bonn with appeasement -- there is likely to be a big blowup. And eventually Washington might resort to its ultimate threat -- that of withdrawing American defense forces from West Germany and West Berlin to compel Bonn to a tougher East-West line.
If Bonn's more low-key viewpoint wins out, the US will give the Polish Roman Catholic Church a little more time to try to moderate military rule in Poland before imposing any more sanctions on Warsaw and Moscow. And that time will allow Washington and Bonn to work out their differences pragmatically in the light of concrete developments.
Which route the Reagan administration will choose is not yet apparent in Bonn. It could well be somewhere between the two.
The crucial test -- since other policies are remarkably similar, despite divergent rhetoric -- may well be the multibillion-dollar gas-for-pipeline deal signed by Western European firms and the Soviet Union in November. Reagan's already announced sanctions include a ban on American sale to the Soviet Union of advanced technology for the pipeline or other uses. But they do not, so far as is known, bar European sale of technology already licensed by the US.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig has been calling for unspecified ''parallel'' actions on Poland by the European allies. According to American sources, however, the US has been assuring West Germany that it is not now using the Polish situation to sabotage the Siberian gas deal, which it has been unable to block diplomatically.
Without specific American pressure, and without any outright Soviet invasion of Poland, the Western Europeans -- especially West Germany, the prime recipient of the gas -- will certainly not scrap the project. Only one of the countries involved, Italy, has talked of reviewing participation in the deal because of Poland.
Even the French government, which has uttered some of the toughest language on Poland, has said that it will not impose US-type sanctions on the transfer of technology to the Soviets but will only ensure that French companies do not snap up American contracts voided by Reagan's action.
As for other sanctions announced by Reagan, no European nation is emulating the US in cutting off Polish or Soviet air landing, port, or fishing access. But the major economic levers - economic and food aid and credits, and rescheduling of Poland's $27 billion hard-currency debt - are being applied against the Polish military government in a rather uniform manner.
Thus, West Germany, the US, and their major NATO allies are all suspending new economic aid and credits to Warsaw under the present condition of martial law and arrests. All are trying to monitor food and medicine donations or subsidized deliveries to Poland to ensure that they go to needy civilians rather than to the Army.
The Americans and the Western Europeans are similarly agreed on not bailing out the Polish military regime by again extending Polish loans as they did during the 16 months of Polish liberalization. The West's specific refusal to dole out the $350 million Warsaw requested at the end of 1981 for industry payments already seems to have brought some response: some Polish interest payments to Western banks reportedly resumed Dec. 29.
But the rhetoric of the allies has differed dramatically. The US has been the toughest in attributing Polish Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's crackdown directly to the Kremlin, and stressing that Moscow must not get away with ''business as usual.'' In varying degree, France, Great Britain, and Italy have followed the American lead.
West Germany, in common with Denmark, the Netherlands, and Greece, has been the most cautious in statement. The government asserted Dec. 30 that Bonn doesn't agree with Washington's view that Moscow instigated the Polish repression. It also described American sanctions as unilateral actions, about which NATO consultations must still be held.
Bonn's reasons for discretion are threefold.
First, the dominant strain in West German analysis is more hopeful than Washington's about Jaruzelski's patriotism and more fearful about how much worse a Soviet invasion would be. Bonn regards Jaruzelski as probably having declared martial law to avert the worst: Soviet invasion.
Bonn also thinks - in common with the Vatican - that even the slim possibility of restoring a post-bloodshed social contract in Poland must be given every chance. To this end Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher received Polish Vice-Premier Mieczyslaw Rakowski in Bonn Dec. 30 to ask how soon Jaruzelski plans to fulfill his Christmas pledge of releasing detainees and returning to the course of reform.
The second reason for West German caution lies in Bonn's conviction that grandstanding is futile. As one American summed up American-German differences, ''We talk about (making the Soviets) pay a price somewhere, somehow, for the things they do. It's a form of linkage. The Germans, on the other hand, say . . . you shouldn't punish a bear for being a bear. In fact, you shouldn't punish it at all unless you know how you are going to follow through. . . .and a year from now the US will reverse course anyway?''
The third reason for Bonn's reluctance to heighten East-West confrontation is the loss that West Germany would suffer from deterioration of East-West relations into cold-war hostility. A front-line West Germany that values the East-West German humanities that developed during detente has more to lose than any other Western country.