AS THE arms-control strategy known as SALT gradually slides toward collapse this autumn, important statesmen begin to resemble priests of a dying religion. They repeat all of the right prayers but the liturgy no longer seems convincing.

Some of us who were agnostics all along thought it would take at least a decade to reach this point when neither left nor right, hawks nor doves, can still look reverently upon this treaty-making process. Hawks think SALT leaves us weak and vulnerable. Doves are beginning to understand that SALT propels the arms race as much as it harnesses. Any grand strategy which can be easily routed by a light cavalry brigade -- those Russians in Cuba with their 40 tanks -- must not be so grand.

This perception, I think, is now widely shared in Washington regardless of whether SALT II eventually does get ratified. The theory of serial superpower treaties with the Russians is a lot less promising than Nixon and Kissinger, Ford and Carter led us to suppose. The high priests of diplomacy will be traumatized by this, but the rest of us may see an opportunity in disaster -- a chance to think new thoughts which fit world realities better than SALT.

Sen. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, who is so serious about his work that newspapers usually describe him as dull, has the germ of an historic idea -- a concept of international relations that actually looks forward and tries to address the interdependent world of the future, instead of the superpower past. The idea is simple enough, but it requires a fresh perspective to grasp its full potential. So, naturally, very few in Washington are ready to take it seriously.

"The SALT process is inadequate," the senator was saying the other day. "It may be collapsing of its own weight. It can't control weapons systems faster than technology can develop them."

Stevenson wants to build another international structure alongside the Soviet-U.S. arms negotiations -- a global information system, shared and operated cooperatively by all nations. It would use space satellites and the technological wizardry of modern intelligence agencies for peace-keeping as well as to aid human endeavors, from agriculture to mineral exploration.

The senator is uniquely positioned to see the potential, for he is chairman of the Senate Space Committee, overseer of NASA's plans for the 1980s, and also chairman of the intelligence subcommittee which keeps tabs on the CIA and other clandestine agencies. These NASA space satellites have become ho-hum to most citizens, just as NASA became a public bore after the moon landings, but a new generation of devices can now do extraordinary things in monitoring the surfaces of earth -- from identifying crop blights and impending drought to locating the most promising target ground for oil drilling, for mineral extraction, for human development of many kinds.

Coupled with the CIA's sophistication in photo-reconnaisance analysis, this new era of space could produce stunningly direct benefits for everyone, rich and poor, big and small.

As the Bible tells us, mankind will go on making war of one kind or another until the last millennium and space satellites aren't going to change that. But a shared intelligence system does offer another means of early-warning alarms when one country starts massing troops on a border or a superpower opens a new submarine base or a nation's industrial capacity is shifted in a menacing direction. It would not make pacifists out of rogues -- but it would pin down the rogues in the international forums with hard evidence.

Stevenson is offering his own version of an idea which has been pushed for years by a dogged team of peace seekers, Howard Kurtz and his late wife Harriet, who incorporated themselves as global thinkers under the arresting title of War Control Planners. Mostly they are ignored. But those skeptics who threw away the Kurtzes' material on a "global information cooperative" might want to fish it out of the wastebasket now that a mainstream figure like Adlai Stevenson has picked up the concept.

"It's not theoretical," Stevenson said. "It's so concrete I can't talk about it."

Anyone who understands how the world has changed in the last 20 years, the complicated and fragile interdependence of trading nations and supranational corporations, can see immediately how a cooperatively operated international system might contribute to stability and equity. Those who don't yet understand the new global conditions ought to read Robert Samuelson's recent tour of the horizon in the National Journal. Samuelson, who is not given to hot-blooded opinions, trembles a bit for our future.

In diplomatic terms, a shared satellite system might create, for the first time in this century, a daily practicality to that old and somewhat tattered vision of world cooperation -- the theme that created the League of Nations and then the United Nations, neither of which lived up to the cotton-candy promises of world fellowship. The world, I think, has learned that you can't get from here to there by solemn resolution. It has to be done, if it ever will be done, a step at a time, in the most practical terms -- serving real human necessities, not lofty sentiment. It could be hardware, not hot air, which brings nations together, cooperating in mutual self-interest.

What would happen to the Cold War? The Cold War will continue surely, for a long time. If for no other reason, it continues because our leaders and the Soviet leaders believe in it so fervently. Two muscle-bound empires contending for the world's loyalties, mainly through the stockpiling of mega-death weapons and occasionally by military adventure, cannot simply stop their competition by a declaration of amity. The historic pull is much stronger than any treaty. The Cold War will not end until it seems increasingly irrelevant, even to the most opaque diplomats, theirs and ours.

In the SALT debate, a great many people assume that if the Russians are for it, it must be bad for America.

One of the most attractive features of Stevenson's concept of a global system is that it doesn't require a blessing at the summit from the Russians. Americans can make it happen with the Soviets or without them. One assumes that the Soviet Union and other closed societies will be at least enthusiastic and perhaps hostile to the idea. In the same sense, a global space cooperative tests the sincerity of America's own proclamations. We have been saying we are for "open skies" since the days of Eisenhower; now we have the practical means to fulfill that objective in a way that would help each independent nation to develop itself and also to protect itself.

Like any important idea, this one creates some hard arguments. The civil space program, for instance, is chilled by the notion of marrying up on some international scale with military intelligence -- fearful that it would be devoured. No one, for that matter, would advocate that the United States dismantle its own intelligence systems; it would continue to operate alongside the world system.

The United States, as the leader in space and intelligence, would naturally be "giving away" more technological secrets than others, but one of the new realities is that other nations already grasp this potential of remote sensing and are pursuing it aggressively -- France, Japan, the European Space Agency and, of course, the Soviets. The question is not whether global systems will be developed -- they will be -- but whether nations will compete with one another at extraordinary costs, developing hardware of conflicting design, or whether they will pool their efforts, insuring equitable participation for those poor nations who can't afford their own rockets.

But, as Stevenson sees it, the basic question is whether American leaders in the 1980s have the imagination to grasp untested ideas and take the plunge into the future. He is not hopeful. Last summer, he sold this idea at a U.N. conference in Vienna, officially endorsed by the State Department. But he isn't kidding himself about the meaning of that commitment, which is no more than a polite nod. Most of our statesmen don't understand this idea or care about it. Some who begin to grasp the concept are scared by it.

"It has to be negotiated," Stevenson said, "and it will only be negotiated if the United States takes the lead . . . . The obstacle is the inability of the United States to think in large global terms. Launching an Apollo program today is inconceivable. Today we debate reorganization and zero-based budgeting."

I think the serious senator has a point. Small minds will tremble if the SALT process collapses. Others will see an opportunity and reach for new ideas.