The Nobel Peace Prize is perhaps the most coveted honor in the world today. It can also be the most controversial.

So it is with this week's decision of the Nobel Committee to pass over President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev, instead bestowing the 1988 peace prize on the peacekeeping operations of the United Nations.The committee tried to explain away this omission on the grounds that awarding the prize to the two world leaders might have had an impact on the U.S. presidential campaign. But the committee hasn't hesitated to make plenty of other peace prize awards that had political repercussions elsewhere in the world. Besides, the new nuclear arms agreement engineered by Reagan and Gorbachev is widely recognized as a major breakthrough toward making the world safer from mass annihilation.

But so be it; the U.N. peacekeeping forces are still a worthy second choice. Nearly 10,000 people from more than 30 countries serve in those forces, either as observers checking on possible truce violations or as blue-helmeted troops stationed in various trouble spots around the world.

The fact that most of those troops are stationed in the Middle East tells something about the persistence and complexity of the antagonisms in that particular part of the globe.

Also telling is the fact that, even with the omission of President Reagan, 18 Americans have won the Nobel Peace Prize over the years, giving the U.S. more recipients than any other country. Remember that point the next time someone insists the U.S. isn't peace-loving.

Meanwhile, may the bestowal of the 1988 peace prize on its peacekeeping forces not only prompt more respect for the U.N. but also inspire the world organization to earn more respect. The U.N. can accomplish that not just by suppressing unrest, as its troops often do, but by trying to come to grips with some of the underlying causes of conflict.