THE LATE Walter Lippmann was fond of saying that an informed public could participate in the formulation of American foreign policy about as effectively as a fat man could be a ballet dancer. Although much of Lippmann's career as a journalist-statesman was devoted to informing and influencing the public in the field of foreign affairs, he and many other people of his generation in American public life wanted to be sure that the lines were clear: the experts would make and explain policy, and the rest of the people would gratefully accept it.

It was in that spirit that a group of well-educated and well-connected men got together in New York in 1921 to form the Council on Foreign Relations. The barely 50 members, mostly bankers and lawyers, held monthly black-tie dinners at the Harvard Club to hear world travelers or foreign dignitaries talk about conditions overseas and to discuss how the United States ought to react to them. By occasionally publishing its observations or findings, the Council signaled its expertise and wisdom; almost immediately it established the journal Foreign Affairs as a forum of highbrow discussion of the issues demanding attention in the post- World War I period.

The Council on Foreign Relations has maintained a special place in American public life ever since. Its membership has gradually expanded and diversified over the years, and it has remained an important arena for civilized, if sometimes narrow, debate on foreign policy.

In its halls, at its functions, or on the pages of its journal, George Kennan launched the foreign policy of "containment," John Foster Dulles unveiled "massive retaliation," and Dwight D. Eisenhower drafted a letter to President Harry S. Truman demanding a new American military presence in Europe.

The Council has also become a controversial institution. Critics on the left attack it as an "imperial brain trust" that sponsors an undemocratic process aimed at preserving "the existing structure of Western power and predominance." Critics on the right, especially in the John Birch Society, demounce it as part of a "conspiracy" mounting "external and internal assaults on our Republic" in the name of "one-world government or a managed global economy."

Columnist Joseph Kraft, for his part, regards the organization as an impressive "school for statesmen," while economist John Kenneth Galbraith complains that it is "the seat of boredom." "Most of the proceedings involve a level of banality so deep," says Galbraith, "that the only question they raise is whether one should sit through them."

Robert D. Schulzinger, a professor of history at the University of Colorado, has had apparently unprecedented access to the Council's archives to write this book, and he has decided that it is none of the above. Recounting its history in excruciating, almost unbelievable, detail, he concludes that while the Council has had "modest effectiveness" in some areas, it is mostly irrelevant.

SCHULZINGER has developed very strong feelings on this subject. He treats the Council as an object of mockery and scorn. In an ostensible effort to be breezy and funny, he instead is snide and irritating. He goes so far as to tease the Council for serving Sara Lee cheesecake and to complain that the advertisements for gin in Foreign Affairs contribute to an "atmosphere of genteel Anglophilism."

The Wise Men of Foreign Affairs is a handsome title, and the subject presented a rare opportunity to tell some important American intellectual and social history. What emerges instd is a 254-page term paper, plus 88 pages of footnotes, lists, bibliographies and index. Having seen so many Council documents, Schulzinger seems to feel obliged to quote from them all, each at considerable length. For plot summaries of nearly everything the Council on Foreign Relations has published in the last 63 years, this book is fine; for true insights into the nature of the club, it is not.

Taking advantage of the documentary material here, however, one does gain perspective on the role of the internationalist elite before and during the various wars fought by the United States in this century.

IT IS IMPRESSIVE, for example, to find the Council and Foreign Affairs warning early of the menace posed by the rise of Nazism in Germany, while much of the political and social establishment remained indifferent. (Admittedly, some of this was not so high-minded, as when Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the man who personified the Council and edited Foreign Affairs for 44 years, argued that the impending war in Europe would present the United States with a "grand opportunity" to become "the premier power in the world.")

In the case of Vietnam, however, the Council comes across as strangely removed from the bitter debate that began to consume the country during the late 1960s. This was an instance where polite discourse and respect for those in high office probably precluded, or at least delayed, irreverent disagreement. When a key architect of Vietnam strategy, William Bundy, succeeded Armstrong as editor of Foreign Affairs in 1972, the widespread impression was that the Council was callously indifferent to important currents in public opinion. (A furious group of Council members tried to block Bundy's selection, and, when they failed, made sure the public learned of the turmoil in the inner sanctum.)

Ultimately, Schulzinger's grievances with the Council on Foreign Relations boil down to three: that it is unservingly and self-consciously centrist in orientation, that it has often tried to take undue credit for influence over policy, and that it failed to anticipate all of the world's most serious problems of the 20th century. So what else is new? These are matters of institutional, as well as human, nature.

But the real point of Schulzinger's book seems to be to argue that the Council does not matter. Why then, one must ask, did he bother writing about it?