A sense of sober anticipation is building in Western capitals as the days wind down toward deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe. As things stand now, deployment will go forward, despite clear signs of reluctance surfacing through the show of NATO resolve.
West Germany is in the midst of 10 days of planned demonstrations against the arms - arms ostensibly intended to offset the Soviet buildup of SS-20 missiles and force the Soviets to negotiate at the intermediate nuclear force (INF) talks in Geneva. So far, the demonstrations have been less nasty than was feared. West Germany's foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, met with his Soviet counterpart, Andrei Gromyko, over the weekend in Vienna. Genscher came up dry in any search for give toward an early pact. He emphasized that Bonn-Moscow relations are scheduled to continue, deployment or not, in the form of economic talks and other meetings in coming months.
Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi visits Washington today. His public message is that ''no opposition demonstrations'' against US cruise missile deployment in Sicily ''could bring about a change in the line of conduct of the government fixed by a mandate freely decided upon by Parliament.'' Only Soviet concessions could deter the West's deployment, Craxi says. Privately the Italians, too, admit they're anxious.
Ironically, such unilateral petitioning of the Soviets for concessions makes the Soviets a silent partner in NATO, analysts say. And yet the internal anxieties of the countries on whose soil the missiles will sit must be taken into account.
French President Francois Mitterrand, urging NATO to be firm in the deployment, tends to be the most solidly fixed of the West European leaders on the issue - but there's little dissent in France over the missiles, with France having its own independent nuclear force.
In the United States, President Reagan has endured little political meddling from the Democrats on the INF talks. Presidential candidate John Glenn suggests the cruise missile deployment could be delayed, but not even the Soviets seem much concerned about the slow-moving cruise missiles. It's the Pershing IIs that bother them. The nuclear freeze movement in the US is a broad, generalized movement that has not really focused on the immediate political test on the INF front.
The most important next step for Mr. Reagan, having named his new national-security adviser, will be to assure his partners in deployment that there will be no return to the harsh rhetoric of the last few weeks following the South Korean jetliner incident.
West Europeans want consistency in US policy. The latest change in Reagan's foreign policy command was unsettling to them. Robert McFarlane, the likely nominee from the outset, was their preferred choice over UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. But it was change itself, at a most crucial moment in East-West affairs, that bothered the allies most.
The basic thrust of INF missile deployment puts West Germany in a more independent path politically and economically - whether under the Social Democrats or the Christian Democrats. The West Germans intend to adjust to the Soviets, even while they are deploying the missiles. And the West Germans may be as anxious that they might lose something with the East Germans as with the Soviets, having been warned some bi-German ties might be jeopardized if deployment progresses.
Deployment approaches with resolve but with few enthusiasts in the West, including in the Reagan administration, which inherited the Carter plan. One of the arguments for Mrs. Kirkpatrick's appointment to the White House was the need to put some ideological thrust behind the scheduled deployment.
The missiles' advocates see a Soviet strategy in Europe to attack in depth - that is, go after the West's missiles, not just its conventional forces. Hence NATO needs a hair-trigger, instant response if the Soviets attack, they argue. West Europeans see this as automatic war if the Soviets attack in any fashion.
For their part, the Soviets are trying to take advantage of the West's demonstrations. Yet the Warsaw Pact communique last week was moderate in tone, suggesting the Soviets will stay in the negotiations for the time being. The Soviets are known for last-minute compromise; but none is in sight.
Deployment will be done in the name of deterrence, of course. But it will mean deadlier missiles in Europe nonetheless. No wonder the West grows more thoughtful as it progresses with its deployment plan.