PRESIDENT CARTER seems determined to play the role of world prophet of human rights. It suits the spirits and political tastes of many Americans, and it obviously suits the President. He was in full throat the other evening at the United Nations, declaring that because the members had signed the U.N. Charter, "no member . . . can claim that mistreatment of its citizens is solely its own business." We are not aware that any other President has propounded so bold and sweeping a rationale for interference in other nations' internal affairs, for that is, of course, what it is. The messianic component in American foreign policy has not been stated so purely since Woodrow Wilson's time.

It is inspiring. It is morally satisfying. It is, to the President, politically useful. But is it sensible? Is Mr. Carter aware of the problems he is creating for American foreign policy by his damn-the-torpedoes approach on this question? The United States has every right to champion its values or, if you will, its ideology. It has every right to use its patronage and money to that end. But it is idle to think that many other countries in the world appreciate our values either philosophically or politically. To us, our values are our pride. To most others, American values constitute the basis of a challenge to sitting governments and the existing order. It is not in the cards that most governments will freely cooperate with us in this area.

To a certain extent, we can and should cajole and shame foreign governments into giving real life to the values - American values - which they have formally accepted. That would seem to be the minimal effect of Mr. Carter's pledge of American support to the various U.N. human rights documents he cited on Thursday evening. They can be marginally useful as levers; the United States, to use them in that way, must support them itself as he asked. But those documents are far from the mainspring of most countries' policies. We can deplore that condition, but not ignore it.

Secretary of State Vance suggested the other day that it might be better for the State Department to issue its reports on other countries' human rights on a private basis. Unsurprisingly, he seems to have found that, when you clobber a nation publicly on this issue, you risk arousing its nationalism in a way that not only damages other American interests but rebounds upon human rights. Now that Brazil and a group of Latin countries have dropped out of the military aid program in reaction to American reports on their human-rights situations, for instance, the American handle on rights as well as other matters has been reduced. Whether other governments find us intrusive and arrogant (as they do) is not so important as that we have diminished our power to deal effectively with them. Perhaps it is worthwhile nonetheless to proceed. But certainly we should do so only with an explicit awareness of the costs and the likelihood of success.

A cynic might say that Mr. Carter recognizes this fact of life by going to the United Nations, a forum so accustomed to rhetorical extravagance that his own will hardly disturb the nature of things. He complained, for instance, that the U.N. has alternately neglected and "politicized" human-rights issues, as though this were somehow startling in an organization whose majority regularly passes resolutions condemning "imperialism" and "Zionism." As though, for that matter, Mr. Carter himself has not politicized human rights by his own emphasis on the matter. But Mr. Carter does not appear to us to be that cynical. He seems really to believe in rights with a passion, perhaps a religious passion, overflowing not only diplomatic convention but, in our judgement, diplomatic common sense as well.