President Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt made a valiant effort to convey a common position toward the military regime in Poland. The West German Chancellor bowed to Mr. Reagan's view in recognizing ''the serious pressure'' which Moscow has brought to bear against the Polish reform movement. The two leaders also agreed that the continuing violation of human rights in Poland should be taken up at the Madrid conference on the Helsinki accord. And they repeated the West's call on Polish authorities to lift martial law, release prisoners, and renew a political dialogue.
But it was clear from the Schmidt visit to Washington that the deep divergencies in approach and outlook remain - differences that antedate the crackdown in Poland. These arise from the fact the West European stake in Eastern Europe is much greater than that of the United States. For West Germany and others, East-West detente has worked and the concern now is that the economic and political benefits of that policy - for both Eastern and Western Europe - not be eroded by a precipitate tough stance toward the Russians. Thus, Mr. Reagan's economic sanctions are seen as having little chance of affecting Soviet or Polish behavior and even as perhaps throwing Poland more strongly into the Soviet embrace. It is therefore not certain that the West Europeans will follow the American lead with parallel sanctions, and the Schmidt-Reagan communique reflected this ambiguity.
However, at this stage Mr. Schmidt's inclination to be cautious and await futher developments in Poland seems prudent. He and other European leaders no doubt appreciate the domestic political constraints which played a part in the President's decision to impose limited sanctions in the first place. Some political signal to Moscow seemed necessary given the mood in Congress and in the country. If he had done nothing, Mr. Reagan would have found his domestic constituents nipping at his heels. Yet what the West Europeans might bear in mind is that the President, despite their image of him as a tough anticommunist provocatively spoiling for a fight, took a minimum step by imposing sanctions that in effect are only symbolic. That should be reassuring - as should the fact that the events in Poland are not affecting arms control talks with the Soviet Union.
Does this suggest a greater US understanding of the European scene than sometimes seems evident in the Reagan administration's rhetoric?
Certainly the United States cannot condone the repression in Poland. Economic and political means of bringing about a political compromise there must continue to be pursued by all the Western allies. But it would be dangerous for Washington not to weigh in its calculations the geopolitical realities that have arisen as a result of the division of Europe after World War II.
The Soviet Union has a strategic security stake in Eastern Europe, one which has been acknowledged by the West ever since the war. Asking the Russians to remove themselves from influencing events there is therefore unrealistic. It should encourage the West that a measure of liberalization already has taken place in Eastern Europe and that, as historian George Kennan points out, the Russians will have to tolerate further change if they are to avoid popular revolutions. But it is clear, too, that the Soviet Union will act to prevent what it sees to be a serious deterioration in its security - just as the US superpower would act if its interests were threatened.
These are the factors which West Europeans are acutely conscious of and which the United States must not ignore as it seeks a concerted stand on Poland. It is important that the allies move together, for disunity and dissension only play into the hands of the Kremlin. This requires that they understand each other's positions, consult more fully than apparently was done prior to Mr. Reagan's imposing of sanctions - and not let their differences undermine a posture of fundamental cohesion. It is to be hoped Mr. Schmidt's talks with the President furthered these goals.