TWO THINGS are flagrantly wrong with all the talk you hear these days about "going back to the Cold War," whether those talking about it view the prospect with relish or apprehension. First, the formulation implies a reversion to a world that is simply gone -- a world that existed, for instance, before Soviet military power had reached anything like its present versatility and might, before the Sino-Soviet split had widened and hardened as it now has, before those various awakenings had occurred around the world that have resulted in new militancies and new alliances and new cartels and shortages, before this country had tested the limits of its own power to control events in far-off Third World places and the limits of what it could realistically expect from its energy-short and self-interested allies. 1980 is not 1950. Things have changed.

But they have changed in a kind of continuum of conflict over the past three decades, not radically or abruptly or in night-and-day ways. And that suggests the second profound flaw in the back-to-the-Cold-War formulation: it never was over. It was, on the contrary, the illusion that it was over that helped get this country into its present fix. Conflict shifted, it took new forms, it rearranged itself courtesy of new leaders and new insights and new weapons and new social and political explosions all around the globe. But it was foolish to look upon the Russians as a bunch of misunderstood but promising vulgarians who were acting out of some curable inferiority complex that we must pamper and indulge, as foolish as it had been before to view them as insane and implacable soldiers readying a skyful of hydrogen bombs to drop on everyone at once. The whole notion that we had gone to a new and transcendently different relationship with the Soviet leaders and that the essential and intractable tensions of the earlier conflict had been resolved was false and misleading and as dangerous as it apparently was seductive.

These two premises urgently need to be kept in mind by people -- especially those in government -- who are now in the midst of reconsidering what this country's relations with the Soviets ought to be like. Rumor has it that some sort of "doctrine" is even being fashioned over at the White House that will take note of the government's recent disillusion and prescribe some principles and truths to guide us in the bleak days ahead. It will strike some as pretty late in the game to suddenly be looking for a doctrine, but never mind. If this administration can organize its thoughts on the condition of the world and the proper U.S. response to the threats that lie therein, it will probably be a net gain.

It should begin with a revised, cold-eyed appreciation of who the Soviets are and have long since been, junking the romantic sheet music of detente. It needs to stop being surprised at utterly unsurprising Russian behavior and to call off its tireless and endlessly inventive search for explanations and rationales and, often, alibis for truly aggressive and squalid Russian actions. This much the Afghanistan invasion appears to have accomplished in Washington. It's not so clear from the back-to-the-Cold-War rhetoric of astonished disappointment, however, that either the near permanence of this condition or the difficulties of dealing with it in a world so different from that of '50s is understood.

Here one comes to the place where it is obvious that no doctrine -- no matter what it says -- will have any standing except as it gets people throughout the country thinking in new and harder ways. The country, not just its government, needs to yield up its comforting cliches and take on the tough questions. Are we prepared to take the painful collective steps required to free ourselves from dependence on -- really junkie-like addiction to -- imported oil? Can we pursue such an objective without turning definitively and harmfully against that concept of international "interdependence" that can help tame conflict and improve people's lives by making us all, in some sense, hostage to one another?Is the United States prepared to learn as much from the plight of the boat people as from its own failure and humiliation in Vietnam? Is the country ready to assume a larger and less frightened international role than it was able to bear contemplating after the fall of Saigon? Are people prepared to take the hard but necessary step toward recognizing that most of the world's countries are led by roughnecks and authoritarians and that we must have a coherent view of what our right relation to them is in practical and moral terms? Will we address the defense budget reasonably in light of the newly recognized military realities? Or will we continue to view it as a symbol -- more is tougher, less is peaceable -- and ignore the terrible gold-plated inadequacies of much of the military establishment we already spend so much on? And if we must spend more, where is the money to come from?

Before you say you're glad you don't have to answer those questions, let us remind you that you do. We all do. No "doctrine" Jimmy Carter cranks out will be worth the parchment scroll it's inscribed on unless these questions are addressed. And no position he takes will itself be worth very much unless he can start the country in the direction of reaching an intelligent consensus on how we deal with the continuing Cold War.