ESTRANGEMENT; America and the World. Edited by Sanford J. Ungar. Oxford University Press. 347 pp. $19.95.

AS A RULE, thematically-linked essay collections on foreign policy are made to be yawned over. Estrangement is a refreshing exception. Not only are the contributors (who include, among others, Robert J. Donovan, J. Bryan Hehir, Lester Thurow, Richard Ullman, and Frances FitzGerald) exceptionally distinguished; the changes they ring on the theme of U.S. "estrangement" from the world are various, stimulating and for the most part coherent. There is a figure in this carpet.

In America, foreign policy agendas tend to follow one another in an action-reaction pattern. Jimmy Carter defined his purposes in terms of what he regarded as Nixon-Kissinger departures from morality. The Reagan forces, four years later, derived their vision of U.S. needs in part from the view that Carter had been insufficiently assertive. Estrangement, in turn, looks in some ways like the opening gun in the approaching reaction against the Reaganite, or neoconservative, view of the world.

In the Reagan version, during these past five years the errand of U.S. foreign policy was seen essentially as repair. It was imperative to buck up, by bully-pulpit pep talk, the despondency that lingered from Vietnam. America must also be rearmed, so that friend and foe would see the starch and backbone returning. "Standing tall" was the favorite phrase, with its cowboy resonances. Finally, the reference point against which performance might be measured was the post-World War II era of effortless U.S. supremacy, when our writ ran virtually uncontested.

It's too early to assess the legitimacy of that agenda or the accuracy of the world- view that underlay it. But one thing is certain. The essays in Estrangement offer a very different, usually more skeptical and often more subtle reading; and the historical perspective is, in most cases, early-republican (small r). The only shared premise is that there is something askew, a disequilibrium in the U.S. relationship with other nations, here called estrangement.

AN ESSENTIAL preliminary question, too seldom asked, is whether there is indeed some natural equilibrium in our terms with the world. If so, was it to be seen, as the Reagan theory seems to hold, in the globalism of the 1945-65 period when U. S. military, economic and political superiority was all but unchallenged? And if so, how did that happy preeminence slip away? By default or by funk? Or was the change in perceived American fortunes merely the inevitable disappearance of an abnormal hegemony, sure to end when other nations recovered from war and shook off the burden of colonial administration and war? This, one would surmise, is the view of most of the contributors to this volume.

Certainly no essay is more helpful in establishing historical perspective than Philip L. Geyelin's "The Adams Doctrine and the Dream of Disengagement." Geyelin is emphatic. "Disengagement," he says, and it sums up his theme, "is the natural American condition." Taking the sweep of U.S. history from the earliest days of the Republic, it is hard to dispute this. And Geyelin finds its classic utterance in the famous words of John Quincy Adams: The United States "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy . . . is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all . . .(but) the champion and vindicator only of her own." The danger of straying from this creed, Adams shrewdly predicted, would be that "the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. . . . She might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit."

These, obviously, are maxims, not policy formulations. But with a prodigious acuteness and elegance they sum up cautions that apply in every age, to virtually every foreign- policy adventure. Like the more familiar admonitions of Jefferson and Washington, they constitute a cautious pattern for the pursuit of U.S. interests which cannot correctly be called isolationist but sometimes is.

There are other useful materials here for the analysis of U.S. policy. There are Donald McHenry's interesting observations on the U.S. response to insurgent nationalism -- unseasoned, as McHenry sees it, by the experience of grappling with colonial administration. Lester Thurow, the economist, reminds us of how thoroughly we are entwined in the international trading system and of how little we choose to acknowledge the interdependency.

This is in a sense a reactive book, featuring dissident though not precisely dissenting voices. No contributor counsels a retreat into some sort of shell, as in the disastrous 1920s and 1930s. All would surely agree that the interests and duties of America in 1985 are not to be sensibly measured by the interests and duties of 1785, or even 1885. A small group of underpopulated agrarian colonies, perched on the edge of a vast ocean dominated by British sea power, is not the electronic-nuclear-jet-powered nation of today. Thus the nature and perils of estrangement require constant redefinition. Yet as Philip Geyelin reminds us, the words of Adams, Jefferson and Washington have yet to be bettered as a starting point. The discussion may not end there; but it is never amiss to orient ourselves in their enduring wisdom.