BY ANY RECKONING, Walt Whitman Rostow is one of the most prominent of those professors who seem to have run the American government in recent years. As the major foreign policy advisor in the White House for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, he was the precursor for the Kissinger that followed. Rostow also remains a major and prolifie scholar, bringing together the methods of history and economics in order to understand the past and grasp the future -- the grand task he sets for himself in The World Economy: History and Prospect.

His well-known extracurricular involvements inevitably raise the suspicion that he is now more an apologist than a scholar. Yet the apology in these works is not for himself but for that postwar political-economic system, at home and abroad, which has been his generation's great achievement. He wants to show how that system evolved naturally from the development of modern industrial civilization and how it may now be preserved under challenge. The result is a masterful sorting and summary of technical information and insight, copious with interesting statistical material, and admirably free of jargon. Unfortunately, however, it is not altogether convincing.

The World Economy is large enough to be counted as three books in a single volume. One part analyzes modern industrial economies since the 18th century, with particular attention to the "long waves" in economic activity. A second describes the rise and fall of the postwar boom, and a third prescribes future policies on population, scarcity, pollution, national and international economic management. A second smaller volume, Getting from Here to There , focuses on policies, but also incorporates much of the conceptual and historical material.

To summarize complex arguments very briefly, Rostow's historical analysis builds on the work of N.D. Kondratieff, a Russian economist from the interwar period: Kondratieff, noted, in addition to capitalism's obvious short-term business cycles, long-term cycles of roughly 50 years. His data found that commodity prices, the production and consumption of certain key industrial commodities, wages, foreign trade, and interest rates were all linked together in vast secular rises and falls. Kondratieff never developed an integrated theory to explain his cycles. Rostow ascribes them essentially to a "contrapuntal" relationship between the primary sectors of food and raw materials and the historic "leading sectors" of industry --first textiles, then iron and steel, then "high energy" industries like automobiles, electrical goods, certain chemicals, etc. Long-term investing, particularly in the primary sector, invariably overshoots and then undershoots demand; hence a regular sharp long-term oscillation between industrial and primary prices. And hence, with numerous qualifications, Kondratieff's long waves.

Rostow believes that the period from 1951 to 1972-73 was a Kondratieff "downswing" -- a time of relatively low prices for primary goods, like the period from the end of World War I to about 1936. In the downswing after World War I, these low primary prices helped drag down trade and growth into depression because agricultural and raw materials producers lacked the money to buy manufactured goods. But, in the post-World War II downswing in primary prices, mass-consumption products formed the leading industrial sector and the domestic markets of the manufacturing countries were, in themselves, sufficient to sustain high demand. Within this historical context, Keynesian policies of full-employment proved the key to sustained prosperity.

That felicitous postwar era has now come to an end, Rostow believes. A major shift in the terms of trade, a new Kondratieff upswing in primary prices, was to be expected and began to occur with the price revolution of 1972-73.

Historically, these shifts in prices tend to come all in a rush and then to drift slowly, with many oscillations. Despite the dislocations which they cause, Kondratieff upswings, like the present, normally inaugurate periods of sustained prosperity. Why then today's severe and prolonged recession? In a sense, the structural conditions which permitted the rich manufacturing countries to flourish during the postwar Kondratieff downswing now gravely handicap them in today's Kondratieff upswing. For the price revolution has struck directly at the current leading sectors of industry -- automobiles, consumer durables, and the new range of plastics and synthetics -- most of which are energy-intensive and consumeroriented. Rising exports to oil producers have not been sufficient to compensate. The consequent recession, moreover, also struck heavily at those public and private, resources which had been transforming the advanced economies from manufacturing to services.

Before a sustained recovery can be expected, Rostow argues, vigorous government leadership must turn investment toward the primary sectors of energy and agriculture, which, in turn, will provide the new leading sectors to generate growth. The old Keynesian responses, which simply pump up general consumer demand, do not direct resources where they are needed and hence result in self-defeating "stagnation." To curb inflation during the transition, a renewed national consensus must discipline prices and wages. Once the Kondratieff adjustments are made, with America leading the way, the West can proceed to service economies, and the developing countries, with proper demographic and economic policies, can move to high mass consumption. American leadership must also refurbish the postwar interdependent international, order. Otherwise, in a climate of scarcity, the world will descend into neo-mercantilist competition and autarchy.

In summary, Rostow's is a sort of baroque liberalism. Classical harmony is gone, but an enlightened and willful leadership can reimpose it. Rostow does review some of the literature on scarcity, but rejects, or rather ignores, its conclusions. As he sees it, any other course but resumed development, Western style, is politically unacceptable.

Each section is, of course, subject to great argument. Kondratieff cycles are a bit of a shell game and economists and historians will doubtless go on arguing about them forever. Rostow's analysis of the recent past is remarkable, moreover, for its inattention either to international monetary questions or to the structural effects of international corporations. Surely inflation is not entirely the fault of undisciplined workers and may not be altogether unrelated to the United States' persistent pouring of surplus money into the world economy. And surely, old-fashioned free-trade notions about a harmonious division of labor in the world, or hopes for a revival of national planning, must come to terms with that structure of international business which now so heavily influences the world's patterns of trade and investment.

For all the talk of new policies, Rostow essentially prescribes a conservative restoration of the Pax Americana. But his presumption that our postwar political-economic system can be rejuvenated and extended indefinitely lacks credibility. Its credibility declines the more Rostow talks about it. Thus, for all its analytic power, the book finally generates not a renewal of conviction, but a sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

The fault lies less with rostow's powers of argument than with that liberal internationalist dream which so bemuses his generation. Is the future to be a continuous spread of the Western mass-consumption model throughout the globe, a single integrated world of common ideals, tasks, and leadership? No one, obviously, can say. But given the present political and economic trends, a more "plural" world of semi-autarchic blocs seems more probable. Perhaps it is time to start thinking seriously about such a world. For a start, we might ask whether "neo-mercantilism" is some terrible danger to which we may succumb or whether it is not, in fact, our normal condition.Certainly all developed states are mercantilist in the broad sense that their governments continually regulate economic life in order to promote prosperity and avoid rude shocks and disruptions. In the postwar Keynesian age of rapid growth and secure imperial power, free trade clearly made these "mercantilist" tasks easier. In any age of vicious competition, scarcity, and plural power, the same degree of international integration is likely to prove unsustainable. Indeed, excessive "interdependence" already increasingly exposes countries to shocks and disorders which undermine their social systems. Hence, the manifest drift toward protectionism in all countries, our own not least.

The great issue for American policy is whether our power and wealth should resist this evolution to some more plural economic order, or should turn our talents to managing the transition peacefully. The latter would be a truly creative task, above all for the science of political economy. Under the circumstances, it is disappointing to see someone of Rostow's intellectual powers, historical learning, and human experience still dreaming the old dreams. No doubt there are great intellectual risks in cutting loose from established visions. But, as Mr. Rostow ought to know, the costs of fighting the inevitable can also be rather considerable.