IT SEEMS overwhelmingly likely that the Peace Corps, which John F. Kennedy launched with such high hopes and which Richard Nixon tried to bury alive, will be given a fresh emphasis under the new administration. But so very much has happened since Camelot that a Carter-model Peace Corps will need to proceed from different premises, and promise different outcomes, from the JFK model of 15 long years ago. The world has been changing fast, and Americans have been changing, too.

In a world-wide revolution of self-reliance, nations and smaller communities are beginning to take hold of their own destinies, formulate their own development strategies, select more carefully the kinds of interdependence that will best protect their fragile independence - as our own political leaders so astutely and luckily did 200 years ago.

One product of increasing self-reliance has been the banding together of Third World countries to thumb their collective nose at the industrial world even when the economic cost of political muscle-flexing is high (for example, they have gone deeply into debt to contribute to the sudden petrowealth of a few of their number). Another product of self-reliance has been the pervasive turn toward more authoritarian methods of governance, maintained by the readier use of official violence. (The ability of volunteers to operate at arm's length from government in community-based projects will be affected by this trend, as indeed will their personal safety.)

A growing number of developing countries can make "self-reliance" stick because their capacity to handle technical functions, do economic planning and manage large-scale enterprises is so much greater than it was 15 years ago. U.S. foreign aid, and the efforts of international banks and funds to which we make the largest contributions, have speeded this process.So have the U.S. graduate schools which trained a generation of Third World techinicians, planners and managers, teaching them the virtues of self-help and the economics of producer cartels.

The old patron-client relationships are gone. The trend nearly everywhere is toward more collegial working structures in which foreigners, no matter how "advanced," are welcome as colleagues, not mentors - or don't come in at all.

More and more of "international development," moreover, is multinational - funded by regional banks, managed by transnational companies, featuring regulated commodity markets, using global technologies such as earth satellites and weather forecasting systems, depending in the crunch on consortia of creditors and defensive aggregations of debtors. Yet the pattern of the Peace Corps - and the private-sector person-to-person programs, too - is still rigidly bilateral: the covering agreements are binational, the training is focused on the one destination country, the volunteer's experience is limited to one snapshot of a multidimensional and kaleidoscopic world.

Meanwhile, the more thoughtful thinkers in both the Third World and the industrial democracies (the Communist nations are still opting out of the "North-South" planetary bargaining, for fear someone will ask them for a contribution) are persuaded that help from the rich nations to the poor nations mostly redounds to the benefit of affluent minorities in the central cities. The economics of "trickle-down" is found wanting. The code word for this concern, and for a growing determination to make sure that international economic arrangements do something about the absolute poverty of the bottom billion, is "basic human needs." It was not by accident that President Carter used that code word in his first address to the United Nations last month.

The changes in the Third World are matched by changes in U.S. attitudes.

Fifteen years ago Americans were applauding a worldview which seriously asserted "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty."

In the decade from 1963 to 1973, we came in a rush from what Denis Brogan once called "the illusion of American omnipotence" to something more like an illusion of American importence. A more balanced, post-post-Vietnam reaction is now setting in. But Americans are certainly much more realistic today about the limits on their own power to change the world (or prevent its change) than they were when the Peace Corps was born.

During these 15 years we have been having our won revolution of self-reliance. Taking power over our own lives, and protecting our own communities, has become a new secular religion - and swelled the rolls of religious evangelism as well. A new preference for ambitions of manageable scale tracks quite well with the suddenly popular notion that development technologies don't have to be big to be handsome. And in the emerging youth culture, itself a transnational phenomenon heavily influenced by American symbols, new lifestyles and workways feature a reluctance to form lasting relationships, but also foster a willingness to live a work as equals with those of differing pigmentation or political hue. Two Propositions

WHAT KIND of Peace Corps can be fashioned from these new cultural and political raw materias? The puzzle is again, as it was in 1961, to construct a relevant adventure that responds at once to world requirements and to the inner needs of exceptionally motivated Americans, most of them young.

Certainly, the Corps is not what it once was. At its peak in 1967, there were some 15,000 volunteers serving around the world. In fiscal 1977 the Corps is programmed for 5,566 volunteers, including those in pre-service training. That number is projected to decline further, to 5,372 "volunteer-years," in fiscal 1978. Up to 50 per cent of them can be expected, at recent of attrition, not to complete their two-year term of service.

Two central propositions, neither sufficient in itself, might jointly form what legislators would call the "purpose clause" of a resuscitated Peace Corps:

To help people help themselves to meet their basic human needs - especially, to help the more disadvantaged people in each society to develop local processes and institutions so as to become participating members of communities of manageable size and competent to practice a degree of self-reliance.

To train American volunteers to be citizens who understand better the attitudes and skills required to cope with interdependence - by learning to develop cultural empathy, an adaptable functional skill and the organizational skill and political "feel" to practice leadership among equals in participatory systems.

Beyond these two primary purposes, a third test needs to be applied to any overseas volunteer project: is it politically do-able - that is, is it acceptable within the developing country's own self-reliance policies and consonant with its national development objectives?

It would be too much to expect that a Peace Corps program focused on "basic human needs" would be seen as non-threatening by the authorities in every potential host country. But the revived Peace Corps would not be out to save the world or even to solve the global poverty problems, but rather to provide a growing experience for some Americans for the mutual benefit of the host country and America's future capacity to cope. And so there is no reason why a Peace Corps should operate in any given number of countries, or why it should regard as a defeat withdrawal from any country which is not yet particularly interested in meeting the "basic human needs" of its own people.

In any case the future Peace Corps should not be presented, either to prospective volunteers or to host countries, as essentially "aid" in the provision of development manpower. There is no reason to hide from host-country authorities that, in accepting our volunteers and putting them to work, a developing nation is also helping the United States to develop the kinds of people who understand and can work effectively with Third World societies.

The rhetoric of Peace Corps recruitment has always leaned hard on the motivation to serve the less fortunate. But in practice the Peace Corps could never be more than a drop in the vast bucket of world development. More significant by far has been its clear success in providing an important and intensive growing experience for the Americans involved.

"The Peace Corps is not an answer to what the world needs most," says its biographer, Lawrence H. Fuchs. "It is an answer to what Americans need most: to learn how to relate sensitively and empathetically with each other and with persons in other cultures and to learn how to ask assumption-challenging questions which break through the ethnocentrism in which nearly all of us are raised and bound."

The two interlinked purposes suggested here are more likely to be helpful in future Peace Corps operations than the existing mandate "to promote world peace and friendship" by providing trained manpower, helping others understand Americans and helping Americans understand others. This bland triad of legislative purposes has survived several major changes in Peace Corps leadership, structure and doctrine, which suggest that it is not a particularly useful guide to what the Peace Corps actually does.

A focus on basic human needs is a "natural" for the Peace Corps, old and new.Most of its alumni seem to have no trouble describing what they actually did as volunteers in the newly popular language of basic needs and human scale. And what they themselves have gotten out of their experience seems to have been precisely self-training in the attitudes and skills required to cope with interdependence. A Fresh Start

TO SERVE these purposes the Peace Corps needs a fresh start. And that means addressing quite candidly the costs and benefits of the Corps' subordination.

During its first 10 years, the Peace Corps was a separate government agency. In 1971 it was merged with VISTA, Foster Grandparents and several other government-funded domestic agencies into a catch-all called ACTION.

During five years as holding company for the Peace Corps, ACTION has drastically reduced the Peace Corps' visibility, sharpened its recruitment dilemma, decreased the number of volunteers, increased their attrition rate, allowed their cost to rise to politically precarious levels - it is now $14,000 to $15,000 per volunteer per year, or not much less than the average U.S. family income - and in general made the Peace Corps a more routine, less exciting adjunct to the foreign aid business rather than a uniquely valid and vibrant expression of "the best that is in us."

All the effects of the 1971 merger may not have been intended. Some may have been by-products of a reorganization carried through for other reasons; others merely the Parkinsonian consequence of a decade and a half of bureaucratic life and the inflation in the cost of doing everything; still others the result of changes in the outside world to which the organization has not yet fully adapted. But some effects - the emphasis on meeting specific requests from governments, for example, and the decline in the Peace Corps' visibility in the United States - had to be the result of deliberate policy.

The best way to create a fresh start would be to start afresh. That would mean pulling the Peace Corps out of ACTION and setting it up as a public corporation - the device recently used to let the air and light of American pluralism into such diverse fields as public broadcasting, legal services, promotion of the arts, Latin American development and cultural interchange with Asia.

The new Peace Corps - the name carries a precious aura of the nonpolitical and the humanitarian, and should be retained - might then be mandated to pursue its ends by a combination of means:

Directly recruiting and placing volunteers in bilateral projects, as at present.

Recruiting volunteers and placing them in international organizations that are pursuing a "basic human needs" strategy.

Recruiting volunteers and placing them in international functions important to development, such as the World Weather Watch, environmental monitoring (Earthwatch), satellite communication and the handling of resource data from earth satellites.

Making contracts with, or grants to, voluntary nongovernmental organizations to recruit and place volunteers in projects that fit the Peace Corps' reformulated purposes but use the voluntary groups' own styles and procedures.

Sam Brown, the antiwar activist who became Colorado's state treasurer, and Mary King, who coordinated the politics of women in the Carter campaign, have just taken office as director and deputy director of ACTION. They are young, attractive and ambitious. To tell them that they should begin by plucking the central diamond from the tiara just placed on their heads may be asking for an almost superhuman act of political modesty.

Even if, however, they do not recommend to the President that the Peace Corps be spun off from ACTION and restored to independent personality, there are things they can do to give the Corps a broadened mandate, a clearer sense of direction, a more flexible structure, a leaner profile, a more kinetic presence, a more visible identity and a more vigorous leadership. It need no longer be buried alive by deliberate bureaucratic action or inaction. And if the President gives the Corps a push, that yeasty mix of idealism and practical service may once again bear global witness to Americans at their best.