Outside the main banquet room at 1800 K St. NW yesterday morning, the coat rack was crowded with Burberries and other executive rainwear, and an expensive selection of carry-on luggage sat on the floor.

Inside the banquet room, several hundred of the Western world's most influential figures -- men (and a few women) with titles like senator, special adviser, chairman, ambassador, editor, president, minister and managing director -- listened attentively as the first speaker of the day, a large man, wide of jowl as well as shoulder, with dark, thinning, combed-back hair, talked about the urgent problems facing the Western alliance.

"The hour is late, the time is fleeting," declared the speaker. He apologized for the "severe" title of the conference -- "Threats to Industrial Democracies" -- but said such alternatives as "Challenges to Industrial Democracies" and "Opportunities for Industrial Democracies" had been rejected as too mild. "The threats are within us, between us and outside us," he said. "They can be met and turned back, but only with a new vision and truly great and bold leadership."

The grim message needed no elaboration. The violence in Lebanon, the turmoil in Central America, the dispute over the Soviet gas pipeline and the spreading financial woes of the developing countries were on everyone's mind. But while the industrial democracies may have fallen on hard times, things have never been better for the speaker, David M. Abshire, or for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which he helped found in 1962 and has seen grow from a $120,000-a-year, seven-man operation based in a Georgetown townhouse, into a $6-million think tank plushly headquartered in close orbit to the White House and the State Department and employing 150 historians, economists, ex-public officials, researchers and secretaries.

CSIS, which kicked off its fifth Quadrangular Conference yesterday -- "quadrangular" because of the four entities represented, the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Japan -- is a think tank in the thick of things. Abshire, now 56, was tapped to coordinate the Reagan administration's foreign-policy transition teams, and was widely rumored as a possible national security adviser. (He says he took himself out of the running before any job offers could be tendered, preferring to remain at CSIS.) Richard V. Allen, who got the national security job, had been the first staff member hired at CSIS. Alexander M. Haig Jr. had been vice chairman of CSIS' advisory board, and when it came time for Haig as secretary of state to give a major speech on U.S. nuclear doctrine, he came to CSIS to do it. Chester A. Crocker was CSIS' top Africa expert before he became the State Department's.

The flow of personnel in the other direction has been even more striking, what with the three doctors -- Henry A. Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and James Schlesinger -- all now installed under the CSIS roof.

These names have helped earn CSIS a reputation in some quarters as a bastion of conservatism. But it is an undeserved reputation, says Abshire, whose office walls display a bipartisan array -- Kissinger, Hubert Humphrey, Gerald Ford and Dean Acheson, among others.

"When you look at the personality of the center, you cannot capture it in any stereotype," the 56-year-old Abshire says, his 6-foot, 4-inch frame folded into a modest chair on the non-business side of his desk. He has a gentle voice and friendly, baggy eyes that stay in touch. "We don't go out to express a predetermined position or ideology," he says. "We've got a large umbrella."

He runs down the list of Democrats and liberals with CSIS ties: Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.), who has run a seminar on the nuclear-freeze idea; Robert Hunter, a former adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and member of the Carter National Security Council, now a CSIS senior fellow; RobertStrauss and Lane Kirkland, who serve on the CSIS advisory board; and others, many others.

And the center, as Abshire sees it, is far more than the sum of its partisan parts. Its role, he says, is to help policy-makers get beyond ideological or parochial preconceptions and see problems in long-range, interdisciplinary perspective. CSIS "attempts to be a bridge between the world of ideas and the world of action," he says.

It is not only CSIS but policy-oriented think tanks in general that fill this role, Abshire says. Others may see these groups as mere lobbies, or as the latest in unemployment insurance for federal bigwigs, or as proof that in Washington there is such a thing as a free lunch. Abshire takes a more exalted view.

"If you don't mind my philosophizing a moment," he says, fiddling with his glasses in the neighborhood of his lap, "the problem with the total decision-making process in Washington is its compartmentalization. You get jealousies, you get conflicts of interest, you get bureaucrats who lack effective freedom of action. There's a great difficulty of conceptualization. I think outside groups have a very special role to perform at this time which maybe they didn't have in the 1950s. In the 1980s, with the vast number of interest groups, with the Balkanization of America that is occurring, we have a serious problem of organization, strategy and leadership -- and you've got to have all three . . .

"What CSIS has been able to do, time and time again, is to hold meetings ahead of time where [executive] agencies come together with Hill people and outside experts from industry, academia, media. They discuss issues and there's a trading of information and concerns that broadens perspectives and lifts the span of vision to where you've got a gestalt, an integration, a pulling-together sometimes of opposites -- necessary opposites, as a psychologist would see it -- into a unified whole."

Three proud cases in point:

Energy. In 1972, when many in the foreign-relations community were dubious or indifferent, CSIS senior associate Jack Bridges "sounded the alarm" on the energy crisis, says Abshire, and energy problems have been a high priority ever since. In 1976, the center sponsored a unique $1.5-million tete-a-tete between the coal industry and environmentalists that produced a consensus approach to the use of America's coal reserves.

* International communications. In 1977, a CSIS seminar called attention to the possibility that a satellite-broadcasting agreement might give third world countries a veto on transmissions within or above their territories. U.S. delegates "were conceding too much because they had not realized the political implications of what they were giving away," says Abshire. But after the CSIS seminar, he says, the Carter administration toughened its stand.

* Cambodia. In 1979, according to Abshire, another CSIS seminar played a vital role in energizing U.S. government concern over the behavior of the Pol Pot regime. Until then, Cambodia "just wasn't on the agenda and couldn't break through" -- which goes to show that "every now and then you can have a low-cost meeting that costs nothing more than the coffee and doughnuts, that can have tremendous effect."

Abshire's underlings have been known to grumble about the media's failure to publicize these CSIS achievements, and it seems reasonable to suppose that such discontent extends right to the top of the organization. But you won't find any evidence of it in Abshire's face or voice.

What you will find evidence of is enthusiasm, sprawling out in all directions like the tentacles of a hyperkinetic octopus. One of CSIS' foreign representatives is described as a "leading citizen" of his country "from a very fine family." One veteran staffer is "so smart he writes books in his sleep." The students in Abshire's class at Georgetown last year were "so brilliant that when the semester came to an end you wanted to cry."

An interview with Abshire moves slowly, but the interviewee is moving all the time, popping out of his office to call on various aides to deliver supporting documents, or, in the case of one, to deliver himself as a living, visual illustration for an Abshire panegyric about "these young people, these people in their 20s and their 30s, who represent the future of the center." (Noticing that the aide is wearing blue jeans, however, Abshire adds an apologetic footnote to the effect that "he couldn't get his trousers back from his cleaners this morning.")

Abshire is such a relentless rooter for everything and everybody connected with CSIS that you expect him to start turning cartwheels at any moment. But he is, by all accounts, no mere cheerleader for his team.

In 1971, when Abshire was on sabbatical from CSIS to serve as assistant secretary of state for congressional relations, word came that a House-Senate conference committee was going to give Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty the ax. "They were about to die over the weekend," Abshire recalls. "Bill Fulbright was dead set against those radios. He thought they were a relic of the Cold War, and some others on the Senate Foreign Relations committee felt the same way. The House committee led by Rep. Thomas E. 'Doc' Morgan was very much for them, but the meetings of the conference got so tense that Doc Morgan told me he was not going to go into another meeting. He couldn't take any more of it."

It was, as Abshire says, "a very tense period between the executive and the legislative, because of Vietnam." And he had a job that could have turned him into one of the tenser people in town. "But I found that when you sat down with senators and congressmen in private," he says, "to talk over problems away from the cameras, away from the posturing, it was possible to achieve new levels of insight and understanding."

So he sat down with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. Mansfield had been busy promoting his "Mansfield Amendment" to force the withdrawal of American troops from Western Europe, and Abshire, as the State Department's chief congressional mine sweeper, had been busy making sure the Mansfield Amendment never became law. Still, he had a hunch that Mansfield might be a good listener when it came to the problems of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

"I did not believe that he'd believe that this was the way the Senate should deal with an issue of this nature," Abshire explains. "To vote 'em down was one thing, but simply to have them die by inaction over the weekend was not right. He very quietly said, 'You're right, Dave . . .' And we were able to come up with a one-year compromise that then was taken to Senator Fulbright and to Doc Morgan without them ever meeting." And Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty have been humming along ever since.

If this delicate maneuver sounds uncharacteristic of the Nixon administration, it is utterly characteristic of Abshire, who has been said (by Walter Laqueur, chairman of CSIS' international research council) to possess "the political equivalent of perfect pitch." Give him a baffling political puzzle to tinker with, and he goes at it like a young math prodigy working a Rubik's Cube. He spins the problem around and around until it looks just the way he wants it to look, and then he takes it to just the party or parties most likely to see it his way and to help persuade everyone else of consequence to do likewise.

Except for his two-year stint at the State Department, he has devoted the last 20 years of his life, heart, soul, tongue and pen to CSIS, and his devotion has been the single most important ingredient in one of Washington's extraordinary institutional success stories.

A lifelong military history buff, a West Pointer and a Korean War combat veteran, Abshire left the Army to pursue a doctorate in history at Georgetown. While at the American Enterprise Association (forerunner of the American Enterprise Institute), he had the inspiration of founding an American counterpart to the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies. He sold the idea to AEI-founder William Baroody Sr., to Father James B. Horrigan, dean of the graduate school at Georgetown, and to retired admiral Arleigh Burke, who agreed to become CSIS' first director.

The growth of CSIS since then has been the stuff that think-tank directors' dreams are made of -- and a step-by-step lesson in how to make such dreams come true:

Step One. In its first decade, CSIS got maximum value from limited funds by holding a series of splashy international conferences -- on national security, the Persian Gulf and Vietnam, among other topics -- which attracted big-name participants and generated weighty reports. Yet Abshire was also sensitive to the attention-span problems of policy-makers, and used short, punchy pamphlets, oral briefings, press releases, films or whatever it took to get the CSIS message across.

There was even a cartoon on energy narrated by Charlton Heston and starring the Flintstones. "I have no apologies to make about that," says CSIS communications director Jon Vondracek. "I feel very strongly about Fred Flintstone. I'd like to see a series of Flintstone discussions on major world issues. I'd like to see Fred Flintstone on NATO, Fred Flintstone on foreign aid, Fred Flintstone on population, Fred Flintstone on human rights and Fred Flintstone on the second Gutenberg Revolution in world communications."

Step Two. In the late '60s, CSIS began to assemble an international network of scholars under Phillip Mosely, and began a major expansion of its in-house research staff. (Its personnel policies are decidedly un-academic, however. When a project ends, so does the employment of those involved. "Nobody has tenure," says senior associate Robert G. Neumann, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. "The general understanding is 'No tickee -- no laundry.' ")

Step Three. Returning from his stint as the State Department's congressional liaison, Abshire recruited 20 prominent members of Congress for the CSIS board, including Hubert Humphrey.

Step Four. Abshire and Peter Krogh, dean of Georgetown's school of foreign service, successfully wooed Kissinger with the promise of a joint appointment and a large, private suite of offices where he could carry on the full range of his activities, including memoir-writing. The Mobil Corp. pitched in $250,000 to start a "Future of Business" program under Kissinger's leadership. With a suite of seven offices and a combined research/clerical/security staff numbering about a dozen, the Kissinger operation has been costly, but Abshire gets a tidy return on the investment by using Kissinger as a CSIS fund-raising attraction. He appears regularly at CSIS functions, including "Round Tables" in Washington, Houston and Dallas, composed of business leaders who pay $5,000 apiece to belong.

Step Five. In the '70s, while the center continued to draw most of its funding on a project-by-project basis, it made a bid for greater academic respectability and financial stability by creating three endowed chairs at a cost of $2 million each. The Toyota Co. endowed one of the chairs. Reagan confidant Justin Dart headed up the money drive for another chair named after former treasury secretary William E. Simon.

Perhaps the shrewdest step of all has been a gradual but clear redefinition of CSIS' purpose. In the '60s, with former admiral Burke at the helm, the emphasis was on defense and the Soviet threat. CSIS was a hard-nosed counterbalance to the traditional New York/Wall Street/Ivy League foreign-policy elite. In the '70s, as the nation seemed to grow more conservative, CSIS became less so -- and, in the process, less predictable.

The center still has its critics, but they are hardly in strong voice these days. "Given the range of opinions on American foreign policy," says Norman Birnbaum, professor of sociology at the Georgetown Law Center, "it is curious to have a university institution in which Zbig Brzezinski represents an opening to the left . . .

"It would be regrettable if the public got the impression that a university were solely devoted to the views propagated by the multinationals or the defense industry or those we associate with the Committee on the Present Danger. I'm reminded of a session I went to recently where one of the officials said, 'We should have a dialogue with the nuclear-freeze movement, but of course they're a bunch of imbeciles.' Well, with 'dialogue' like that, who needs antagonism?"

But Birnbaum is a rarity among Georgetown faculty members in his willingness to criticize CSIS. Even at that, he gives Abshire high marks for changing with the times.

The steps Abshire has resisted may be just as important as those he has taken. The center began life with a policy of not accepting government money, and it has modified that policy only slightly to accept grants for its energy work from the Environmental Protection Agency. Only last week, CSIS abruptly withdrew its participation from a seminar on the Philippines because one of the cosponsoring groups had been closely linked to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. "It is traditional policy at CSIS not to sponsor programs with foreign governmental entities," Abshire explained.

But the decisions are not always easy, he says, in reply to a question about CSIS senior associate Ray S. Cline, who has been criticized for his close identification with Taiwan. "I guess you get down to a question of where a person is very taken up on an issue and devoted to an issue," says Abshire, "as compared to what amounts to lobbying, in the legal sense. If there was anything that was close to lobbying, we would certainly disallow it. But you're dealing a little bit in an ambiguous area. We have academic freedom, and that's where he comes out, and by the way we have other people here on the other side of the issue."

On one point, Abshire sees no ambiguity. The bulk of CSIS' funding comes from corporations and corporate-supported foundations. The Atlantic Richfield Corp. and the A.W. Mellon, Rockefeller and Ford foundations have been major donors. But this does not keep the center from having a completely objective view of the world, Abshire insists. "We're not defending corporations," he says. "We're looking ahead at new factors and new influences. They're supporting us, many of them, because they think we have insight into trends that are going to relate to the environment in which they're going to do business."

And besides, he adds conclusively, "all corporations don't agree."