THE STATE DEPARTMENT has never had it easy, for reasons well known. These include chronic bad relations with Congress, the traumatic scars left by the McCarthy era, which bred a tradition of timidity, and a host of image problems created by the striped-pants diplomatic cliche.

State has produced its share of martyrs - John Stewart Service and the others who told it like it was about China and were crucified for their pains - but very few popular heroes.

Most serious, State lacks bureaucratic muscle. Although Secretary of State Cyrus Vance is most senior of cabinet members, and is charged (in theory) with responsibility for the coordination of all foreign policy activities, he presides over a bureaucratic midget. State is the smallest cabinet-level agency in town with a budge of $1.06 billion in Fiscal Year 1976, compared to $128 billion for Health, Education and Welfare, $90 billion for Defense or an estimated $8 to $10 billion for the "intelligence community" including the Central Intelligence Agency.

These tradional problems have been joined by new ones. Most obvious is an appaling personnel logjam. Traditionally, State was able to attract the best young college graduates through a highly competitive annual examination. But the appeal of a Foreign Service career is no longer what it once was. Bright graduates not already alienated by Vietnam and CIA antics are appalled by slow promotions and shrinking job opportunities at State, except in such unglamorous specialties as consular work - issuing visas and protecting Americans abroad - and embassy administration.

Moreover, those interested in significant, fast-moving careers abroad now have many alternatives, thanks largely to the growth of multinational business. American banks alone now employ more officers in their international divisions than the entire U.S. Foreign Service.

Part of the problem is simple attrition. Thanks to progressive post-Vietnam disinvolvement in Indochina and repeated economy moves, the U.S. diplomatic service has shrunk from more than 3,700 officers 10 years ago to approximately 3,500 today. Meanwhile, however, recruitment and promotion have continued.

The result is an acute oversupply of middle-and senior-level officers. Last summer, more than 60 (or nearly 10 per cent) of the diplomats in the two highest grade levels were walking the corridors in Washington, assigned to make-work details of various kinds. The problem is particularly embarrassing because, thanks to generous recent federal pay raises, they are making up to $47,500 each. "It is a miracle that this thing hasn't generated a major scandal," one corridor-walker observed.

Much of this talent might be employable elsewhere in the government. Unfortunately, the career Foreign Service, which administers its own personnel system, has not moved nearly fast or far enough to develop regular interchanges with academia, other agencies or private business. Exhortations to the contrary notwithstanding, Foreign Service promotion panels still tend to penalize those who are rash enough to seek experience outside the admittedly stagnant mainstream - State Department or embassy assignment.

Training activities, which might soak up excess personnel and simultaneously improve qualify, are similarly underdeveloped. Foreign Service officers spend an average of only 6 per cent of their in middle-or upper-level career training, compared to 11 per cent for an average military officer.

The situation certainly will get worse in the months ahead, for at least two reasons. Until recently, all Foreign Service officers were subject to mandatory retirement at age 60, 10 years earlier than the norm for other civilian government agencies. A recent federal court decision in a case brought by a retired diplomat ruled this provision discriminatory and opened the way for other forcibly retired officers under 70 to apply for reinstatement. Simultaneously, the Department of State is under heavy pressure to recruit more minority members by "lateral entry," bypassing the traditional combination of written and oral examinations.

No one has charged State with discrimination. Unfortunately, a Foreign Service career is simply not very attractive to most talented young blacks who are much in demand and can certainly make more money elsewhere. But whatever the cause, the fact remains that affirmative action programs are threatening to force-feed a large dose of blacks, Hispanic Americans and women into State's already clogged personnel system. The Working Wife

TRADITIONALLY, the Foreign Service was a system apart, norished by a sense of elitism. Foreign Service people looked forward to spending most of their lives abroad and regarded Washington as purgatory. They loved the perquisites of overseas living and willingly accepted hardships ranging from dysentery to bossy ambassadors' wives.

"Worldwide availability," which means that you must move cheerfully wherever and whenever the department so ordains, has been one of the most rigid tenets of the system. But several new factors are rending the fabric of this once comfortable subculture.

Most significant is the problem of the working wife. More young diplomats than ever before and married to women with careers of their own and, in an inflationary era, often depend upon their spouses' income. The wives are increasingly unwilling to sacrifice their own careers in order to follow their husbands overseas.

Many such hidden costs inherent in a Foreign Service career have been cushioned by government-provided housing abroad, subsidized medical care and allowances for extra expenses often associated with schooling abroad. But the Treasury Department, backed by sympathetic members of Congress, is now proposing to treat all such allowances as taxable income.

The result could make it impossible to recruit anyone but the independently wealthy for service abroad. A likely compromise - making only some portion of the allowances taxable - would still sharply reduce the appeal and practicality of foreign service.

Such problems could be endured or overcome, as in the past, were it not that the diplomats themselves are nagged by suspicions that the art of diplomacy may be of waning relevance to the conduct of international affairs. There is more to this malaise than the self-doubt that seems to afflict most Americans at present.

A senior Foreign Service officer who recently completed tours at two large European embassies noted that he spent most of his time setting up appointments for visiting delegations from Washington.

"There is no need for high-powered, broad-gauged individuals to do that kind of thing," he concluded. On his return to Washington, he found that State often plays only a marginal role compared to such bureaucratic giants as Defense. Treasury or Agriculture, and that even within State, the key decision-makers, at the rank of deputy assistant secretary and above, are increasingly non-Foreign Service personnel. They are often young bureaucrats with previous experience on Capitol Hill or in other agencies, professional Washington operators who are not remotely attracted by what they regard as frivolous and insignificant service abroad.

SOme ambitious and talented Foreign Service personnel are beginning to accept this ethic, and even to resist transfer abroad. However, to the service in general, the trend is deeply discouraging. The American Foreign Service Association recently praised Carter for doing better than his predecessors at appointing career officers to ambassadorships, but complained that only one-quarter of top-level Washington jobs at State are filled by "professionals," compared to two-thirds a year ago. 65 Major Studies

WHATEVER HER problems, no one would argue that the Empress Dowager of Foggy Bottom has lacked for attending physicians. The foreign affairs community has been the subject of at least 65 major studies since 1951. Legions of involved scholars and concerned bureaucrats have poured out thousands of pages and tended to arrive at remarkably similar conclusions.

Major shortcomings frequently identified include weak and inconsistent internal management, ineffective performance in defense and economic policy-making and inadequate long-term planning and assessment capability. The Foreign Service personnel system has repeatedly been criticized as unduly hierarchical and inflexible.

The most significant thing about the studies is that little serious effort has been made to implement them and virtually none have resulted in major change at State. One major exception was the mid-1950s reform, named for a commission headed by Henry Wriston, which integrated Washington-based State Department personnel with the regular, still exclusive diplomatic corps. "Wristonization" was ill-conceived at the time, and its memory has conditioned many conservative Foreign Service officers to resist any change that might entail the further erosion of their special status.

The Carter administration has inherited the most massive study to date - the 1975 report of the Commission on the Organization of the Government for the Conduct of Foreign Policy, chaired by retired Ambassador Robert D. Murphy.

The Murphy Commission took a different tack from its predecessors. It concluded that it was futile to keep on exhorting State to "take charge" of foreign policy in an age when significant foreign problems (such as energy policy) are increasingly intertwined with domestic concerns. Only the President can resolve major interagency disputes on such "intermestic" issues, it argued.

State should concentrate on what it can realistically do, and then do it well. It defined this role as that of "advocate" in two senses: making sure that the interests of friendly foreign powers are not overlooked in the hurly-burly of Washington decision-making and, perhaps more important, articulating the broader national interest as opposed to the often competing and sometimes parochial concerns of agencies like Commerce, Defense or Agriculture.

The commission further proposed steps to sharpen functional (especially economic and political-military) skills to enable State officers to deal with counterparts in Treasury and Defense. It urged the creation of a top-level Foreign Affairs Executive Service, which would interchange officers among State, the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense and others, thereby broadening domestic opportunities for the Foreign Service.

The kind of revitalization suggested by the Murphy Commission will require progress on two fronts. The traditional diplomatic skills of understanding and negotiating with foreigners are still vital and need to be strengthened. Traditional foreign policy expertise must be more effectively brought to bear in the maelstrom of Washington decision-making. A Natural Monopoly.

WITHIN THE Foreign Service there has been an endless debate about the traditional skills, particularly over the virtues of geographic area specialists versus generalists. Today it is accepted that foreign area expertise, including knowledge of exotic languages, alien cultures and the history and politics of remote countries, is the one vital skill on which the State Department holds a natural monopoly. That the skill is vital should have been proven for all time by the course of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a tragedy based on total misunderstanding of a unique revolution.

In general, State has strong and sometimes outstanding skills for certain major culture areas - China, the Soviet Union and the Arab world. But area knowledge is often weak for other countries of the Third World, where geographic and linguistic fragmentation make it difficult to become genuinely expert without extremely narrow and arduous specialization. Unfortunately, Vietnam was such a country.

As recently as 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, angered by what he regarded as the parochialism displayed at a meeting of officers from U.S. embassies in Latin America, instituted a "Global Outlook Policy" (better known as GLOP), prohibiting his subordinates from serving more than two out of three tours in any one area of the world. (The policy has been greatly watered down, although it remains officially in effect.)

This lingering suspicion of area experise should be exorcized, and the department should raise its traditional skills to the highest possible level, supplementing them whenever necessary by interchange with academia.

Perhaps the most obvious, unique characteristic of the Foreign Service is the embassy - a permanent, overseas establishment staffed by resident, cross-cultural, political and economic analysts (which is what good diplomats are). Especially in the large and more complex Third World countries, visiting delegations are no substitute for such on-the-ground expertise. But embassies are rarely used as effectively as they might be.

Exept under abnormal circumstances such as Vietnam, Foreign Service officers spend most of their time abroad passively observing and analyzing foreign behavior in great detail. According to traditional practice, American policies, made in Washington, are to be implemented, not subjected to meddlesome examination in the field.

Nevertheless, ambassadors, if they choose, can move toward a more systematically activist role. They can use their political and economic sections as a combined policy section, to monitor and evaluate American programs, as well as those of U.S.-supported multilateral activities such as U.S. agencies and the World Bank.

Such activism tends to produce cries of outrage from other agencies, but it could help restore to the Foreign Service the relevance that it is losing. (It should be noted that ambassadors are already charged by law with "supervising" the activies of other U.S. agencies - except the military - in their countries. As is well known, this mandate has usually remained in the realm of polite fiction.) Inadequate Experience

THE FAILURE of the service to perform more effectively in Washington is partly a matter of inadequate experience. The Foreign Service provides some degree of training for any junior officer headed for th emost insignificant overseas post. But it does virtually nothing to provide its Washington assignees with adequate knowledge of complex "intermestic" issues such as energy, food assistance or the proper role of multinational corporations.

There is a glaring need for better technology as well as better training. Thanks to an electronic network funded largely by another agency, information pours from embassies to Washington in staggering profusion. Last year, the State message center handled about 1 million cables, and the number (which does not include documents addressed to other foreign affairs agencies) increases at an annual rate of about 15 per cent.

But having information and using it are two different matters. The State Depeartment has failed to develop more than a rudimentary date retrieval and processing system, and in general less use is made of computer technology than in any modern department store.

Even with an adequate date retrieval system, skilled analysis would be necessary to sift and evaluate the ever-increasing flow of information and get it to the officials who can use it. But State's own analytic capability, concentrated in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, still operates with antiquated manual filing systems and has been heavily cut back in recent years, to the point where one analyst is sometimes responsible for several major countries.

Both in Washington and abroad, the kind of change that is needed would require the Foreign Service to opt for more openness in its dealings with other branches of government, including the Congress, and with the public. If diplomats want greater experience beyond the career service, they should welcome, not resist, the recruitment of some talented outsiders by lateral entry at mid-career levels.

Such a policy may be abused, of course, by using it to confer political favors, but there is no alternative that does not carry the greater risk of stagnation. It would be a logical first step to follow the Murphy Commission's recommendation and merge the executive personnel systems of all foreign affairs agencies. Latitude for Change

THE CARTER administration has an unusual opportunity to initiate such reforms at State, in accordance with the President's own campaign rhetoric. The administration has already established a task force on national security affairs, part of the government-wide reorganization effort being conduted by the Office of Management and Budget. The task force is headed by the chief researcher of the Murphy Commission, Peter Szanton.

At State itself, a new management team headed by Deputy Under Secretary Benjamin H. Read is currently preoccupied with solving the immediate personnel crisis, but should eventually be able to cooperate effectively with Carter's reorganizers in implementing broad institutional reforms.

Considerable formal reorganization and some legislation might be required to achieve the broader, more open Foreign Service advocated here, although State's existing dual personnel system, including both Foreign Service and regular Civil Service personnel, allows considerable latitude for change within present legal and organizational confines.

Congressional opposition to such change - especially when (as in the case of computer technology) it would require expenditure - has been a critical barrier in the past. But experts on Capitol Hill judge that because of the replacement of certain key subcommittee chairmen, notably John Rooney of New York and Wayne Hays of Ohio, Congress might now be surprisingly receptive to a well-though-out reform effort.