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Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, struggling to arrest his country's economic decline, will receive a cautious response from the Bush administration if he asks for help in redirecting resources away from guns to butter.

Although officials are encouraged by the political reforms and economic liberalization under way in the Soviet Union, Washington is unlikely to gloss over decades of superpower mistrust and rush headlong into government loans, guarantees and easy technology transfer, politicians and analysts said."Mr. Bush must develop a Western strategy for economic relations with the Soviet bloc, one that applauds perestroika but does not pay for it," Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat, said last month.

Illustrating that the wariness crosses party lines, the Senate in October approved 64-2 a non-binding resolution expressing concern about a rash of loans from Western governments to the Soviet Union.

Judy Shelton, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, said bailing out the Soviet economy is anathema to America's own economic priorities and its political sensibilities.

"It doesn't make sense to provide financial aid to the Soviets when we are spending billions to defend ourselves from the military threat they pose," Shelton writes in a new book called "The Coming Soviet Crash."

Nevertheless, because of rising emigration levels, arms reduction and internal political reforms, analysts said the chances of a thaw in financial relations are better than at any time since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Speculation is growing that, if Bush wanted to make a conciliatory gesture, he would lift trade barriers that were imposed in 1974 to prod Moscow to allow more Jews and other minorities to emigrate.

The Stevenson amendment to the 1974 Trade Act bars the Export-Import Bank from lending more than $300 million to the Soviets without congressional approval. The companion Jackson-Vanik amendment imposes higher tariffs on Soviet goods by withholding most-favored nation trading status.

Rising emigration totals - nearly 20,000 Jews emigrated in 1988, up from 8,155 in 1987 - have led U.S. Jewish groups to express cautious support for relaxing the curbs, and Bush himself has sent encouraging signals.

"If there are concrete steps taken that are in the interest of better relations and in the interest of world peace, well, we ought to recognize that and give credit and not be begrudging towards the Soviet Union," Bush told the Wall Street Journal.

But he immediately added, "There's still a lot of areas where we need to see progress."

Even if barriers to trade are lifted and the Soviet Union improves the quality of its exports, Western Europe is much better placed than the United States to benefit from an upsurge in trade, bankers and analysts say.

"I would not exaggerate the commercial potential of U.S.-Soviet trade. Both superpowers are losing clout relative to the other nations on the globe," said Paula Stern, former chairwoman of the U.S. International Trade Commission and now a trade consultant here.

Most businessmen and bankers do not see a gold rush either, at least yet. "We're looking for our customers to get contracts, but they're not coming in," a New York banker said.

But a top Soviet economist, Abel Aganbegyan, estimated that bilateral trade, which came to $1.7 billion in 1987, would grow five to 10 times within five years if the Soviets had Most Favored Nation status.

As nuclear weapons become increasingly irrelevant, the real power in the world is coming to consist of surplus capital combined with national self-discipline, advanced technology and superior education, Felix Rohatyn, a senior partner in Lazard Freres and Co, wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

"The leading nations of tomorrow, by those standards, are likely to be Japan and post-1992 Western Europe. The United States, once the unquestioned leader of the West, falls short in every one of these categories," Rohatyn said.