FROM THE TIME of the Declaration of our Independence, Americans have believed that this country has a moral significance for the world. The United States was created as a conscious act by men and women dedicated to a set of political and ethical principles they held to be of universal meaning. Small wonder, then, that Santayana declared that "being an American is, of itself, almost a moral condition."

At the same time, since Tocqueville, it has been observed that we are a pragmatic people, commonsensical, undogatic, undoctrinaire - a nation wth a permanent bent to the practical and an instinct for what works. We have defined our basic goals - justice, freedom, equality and progress - in open and libertarian terms, seeking to enlarge opportunity and the human spirit rather than to coerce a uniform standard of behavior or a common code of doctrine and belief.

This duality of our nature is not at war with reality. For in international politics, our morality and power should not be antithetical. Any serious foreign policy must begin with the need for survival. And durvival has its practical necessities. A nation does not willingly delegate control ove its future. For a great power to remit its security to the mercy of others is an abdication of foreign policy. All serious foreign policy therefore begins with maintaining a balance of power - a scope for action, a capacity to affect events and conditions. Without that capacity a nation is reduced to striking empty poses.

But equally, our nation cannot rest its policy on power alone. Our tradition and the values of our people ensure that a policy that seeks only to manipulate fore would lack all conviction, consistency and public support.

This is why America has been most successful in our relations with the world when we combined our idealism and our pragmatism - from the days when our Founding Fathers manupulated the monarchial rivalries of Europe to secure our indepenced and launch the great democratic experiment to the creative American initiatives after the Second World War such as the Marshall Plan. Our modern efforts to achieve strategic arms limitation, peace in the Middle East and Southern Africa, the opening to China, recasting international economic relations based on the principle of interdependence - have also served both moral and practical ends and can be sustained only by a combinaton of moral conviction and practical wisdom.

THESE CONSIDERATIONS come to bear powerfully on the question of the relationship between human rights and foreign policy. The world needs to know what this country stands for. But we cannot rest on this; we must know how to implement our convictions and achieve an enhancement of human rifhts together with other national objectives.

The accomplishment of the new administration is not that it originated the concern with human rights but that, free of the legacy of Vietnam and Watergate, it has seized the opportunity to endow the policy with a more explicit formulation. The aim of the Carter administration has been to give the American people, after the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate, a renewed sense of the basic decency of this country, so that they may continue to have the pride and self-confidence to remain actively involved in the world.

Having had to conduct American foreign policy in a period of national division and self-flagellation, I applaud and support this objective. The President has tapped a wellspring of American patriotism, idealism, unity and commitment which are vital to our country and to the world. He has focused public concern on one of the greatest blights of our time.

The modern age has brought undreamt-of benefits to mankind - in medicine, in scientific and technological advance and in communication. But the modern age has also spawned new tools of oppression and of civil strife. Terrorism and bitter ideological contention have weakened bonds of social cohesion; the yearning for order even at the expense of liberty has resulted all too often in the violation of fundamental standards of human decency.

The central moral problem of government has always been to strike a just and effective balance between freedom and authority. When freedom degenerates into anarchy, the human personality becomes subject to arbitrary, brutal and capricious forces - witness aberrations of terrorism in even the most humane societies. Yet when the demand for order overrides all other considerations, man becomes a means and not an end, a tool of impersonal machinery.

Human rights are the very essence of a meaningful life, and human dignity is the ultimate purpose of civil government. Respect for the rights of man is written into the founding documents of almost every nation of the world. It has long been part of the common speech and daily lives of our citizens.

The obscene and atrocious acts systematically employed to devalue, debase and destroy man during World War II vividly and ineradicably impressed on the world the enormity of the challenged to human rights. It was to end such abuses and to provide moral authority in international affairs that new institutions and legal standards were forged after that war - globally in the United Nations and in his hemisphere in a strengthened inter-American system.

The fact remains that continuing practices of intimidation, terror and brutality, fostered sometimes from outside national territories and sometimes from inside, mark the distance yet to be traveled before the community of nations can claim that it is truly civilized. This is why the distinguished junior senator from New York, Sen. Moynihan, is surely right in stressing that human rights should be not simply a humanitarian program but a political component of American foreign policy.

For the difference between freedom and totalitarianism is not transient or incidental; it is a moral conflict, of fundamental historical proportions, which gives the modern age its special meaning and peril. Our defense of human rights reminds us of the fundamental reason that our competition with totalitarian systems is vital to the cause of mankind.

There is no reason for us to accept the hypocritical double standard increasingly prevalent in the United Nations where petty tyrannies berate us for our alleged moral shortcomings. On this issue we are not - and have no reason to be - on the defensive. "The cause of human liberty," the poet Archibald MacLeish has written, "is now the one great revolutionary cause . . . "

And yet, while human rights must be an essential component of our foreign policy, to pursue it effectively over the long term we must take the measure of the dangers and dilemmas along the way.

FIRST, any foreign policy must ultimately be judged by its operational results. "In foreign relations," Walter Lippmann once wrote, "as in all other relations, a policy has been formed only when commitments and power have been brought into balance."

To be sure, the advocacy of human rights has in itself a political and even strategic significance. But in the final reckoning more than advocacy will be counted. If we universalize our human rights policy, applying it undiscriminatingly and literally to all countries, we run the risk of becoming the world's policeman - an objective the American people may not support.

At a minimum we will have to answer what may be the question for several friendly governments: How and to what extent we will support them if they get into difficulties by following our maxims. And we will have to indicate what sanctions we will apply to less well-disposed governments which challenge the very precepts of our policy.

If, on the other hand, we confine ourselves to proclaiming objectives that are not translated into concrete actions and specific results, we run the risk of demonstrating that we are impotent and of evoking a sense of betrayal among those our human rights policy seeks to help. Such a course could tempt unfriendly governments to crack down all the harder on their dissidents, in order to demonstrate the futility of our proclamations - this indeed has already happened to some extent in the Soviet Union.

Nor can we escape from the dilemma by asserting that there is no connection between human rights behavior and our attitude on other foreign policy problems - by "unlinking," as the technical phrase goes, human rights from other issues. For this implies that there is no cost or consequence to the violation of human rights, turning our proclamation of human rights into a liturgical theme - decoupled, unenforced and compromised.

Or else we will insist on our values only against weaker counries, in Latin America or Asia, many of which may even be conducting foreign policies supportive of our own. This would lead to the paradox that the weaker the nation and the less its importance on the international scene, the firmer and more uncompromising would be our human rights posture.

SECOND, precisely because human rights advocacy is a powerful political weapon, we must be careful that in its application we do not erode all moral dividing lines. We must understand the difference between governments making universal ideological claims and countries which do not observe all democratic practices - either because of domestic turmoil, foreign anger or national traditions - but which make no claim to historical permanence or universal relevance.

In the contemporary world it is the totalitarian systems which have managed the most systematic and massive repression of the rights of men.

In recent decades, no totalitarian regime has ever evolved into a deomcracy. Several authoritarian regimes - such as Spain, Greece and Portugal - have done so. We must therefore maintain the moral distinction between aggressive totalitarianism and other governments which, with all their imperfections, are trying to resist foreign pressures or subversion and which thereby help preserve the balance of power in behalf of all free peoples.

Our human rights policy owes special consideration to the particular international and domestic setting of governments important to our security and supportive of free world security interests. There are, of course, some transgressions of human rights which no necessity - real or imagined - can justify. But there are also realities in the threats nations face, either from terrorism at home such as in Argentina or aggression across borders such as Iran or Korea.

And we must keep in mind that the alternative to some governments that resist totalitarianism with authoritarian methods may not be greater democracy and an enhancement of human rights but the advent of even more repression, more brutality, more suffering. The ultimate irony would be a posture of resignation toward totalitarian states of harassment of those who would be our friends and who have every prospect of evolving in a more humane direction.

We must take care, finally, that our affirmation of human rights is not manipulated by our political adversaries to isolate countries whose security is important for the future of freedom, even if their domestic practices fall short of our maxims.

The membership of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, composed as it is of a number of nations with extremely dubious human rights practices, does not augur well for an objective approach to this issue in the United Nations. Cuba and other Communist governments, as well as the more repressive regimes of the less-developed world, have no moral standing to bring other nations to international account. We should not hesitate to say so.

THIRD, there is the ominous prospect that the issue of human rights, if not handled with great wisdom, could unleash new forces of American isolationism. This could defeat the administration's goal of using it to mobilize support for continued American involvement in world affairs. That the human rights issue could develop a life of its own, regardless of the administration's prudent sense of the aims and limits, is already evident from some developments in the Congress.

A distorted or misunderstood human rights policy can become the basis and justification of a modern isolationism. What appeals to many as a useful impetus to resistance to the Communist challenge can be used by others to erase all the distinctions between totalitarians and those that resist them, to induce indifference to European Communist parties' accession to power or to disrupt security relationships which are essential to maintaining the geopolitical balance. Excuses can be found to deny help to almost any friendly country at the precise moment when it faces its most serious external challenge.

If conservatives succeed in unraveling ties with nations on the left and liberals block relations with nations on the right, we could find ourselves with no constructive foreign relations at all, except with a handful of industrial democracies. The end result ironically could be the irrelevance of the United States to other nations of the world. A policy of moral advocacy that led to American abdication would surely condemn countless millions to greater suffering, danger or despair.

FOURTH and most fundamentally, we should never forget that the key to successful foreign policy is a sense of proportion. Some of the most serious errors of our foreign policy, both of overcommitment and withdrawal, have occurred when we lost the sense of balance between our interests and our ideals. It was under the banners of moralistic slogans a decade and a half ago that we launched adventures that divided our country and undermined our international position.

A few years later, young people were parading in front of the White House carrying coffins and candles and accusing their government of loving war; the national leadership was denounced as excessively, indeed imperialistically, involved in the internal affairs of other nations.

A few years later still, the government was attacked for sacrificing our ethical values on the altar of detente and being insufficiently concerned with the domestic behavior of other nations. Neither we nor the rest of the world can any longer afford such extreme fluctuations.

Human rights policy in this period of American responsibility must strengthen the steady purpose and responsible invovlement of the American people. It can do so only if it is presented in the context of a realistic assessment of world affairs and not as the magic cure for the difficulties and shortcomings of mankind's contemporary experience.

The administration is surely right in insisting that human rights is a legitimate and recognized subject of international discourse; it is an object of international legal standards - importantly as a result of American initiatives by administrations of both parties.

At the same time, we must recognize that we serve the cause of freedom also by strengthening international security and maintaining ties with other countries defending their independence against external aggression and struggling to overcome poverty, even if their internal structures differ from ours.

We cannot afford to subordinate either concern to the other. Morality without security is ineffectual; security without morality is empty. To establish the relationship and proportion between these goals is perhaps the most profound challenge before our government and our nation.