WE LIVE IN excitable times. Just last year, the NATO alliance seemed quite a different organization from the one we have today. Then the commentators were measuring the cracks not with sensitive seismographs, but with 6-foot rulers.

Some took a grim satisfaction in charting the decline and imminent fall of an organization which had allegedly lost its sense of purpose: lost the arms race, lost the initiative in East-West relations, lost all hope of inner cohesion, and was about to lose the German people and the American Congress.

The Russians have a proverb: When reminded of some tiresome episode in the past, they say, "That was a long time ago, and it was never true anyway."

In point of fact last year's NATO is pretty well the same organization as this year's -- except that it is bigger now that we have Spain; it is better armed; and it is more united. It has not come through some appalling crisis and survived by the skin of it's teeth.

The alliance rests on a tripod: It needs strong democratic societies and economies to match; it needs a sound and sufficient military deterrent; and lastly -- and this to some extent subsumes the first two -- it needs a vision of the future and a practical policy to pursue that vision. The first two legs of this tripod are reasonably firm, but the third is shakier.

We do not lack the weapons or the will to deter or to defend. Nor should we lack the confidence in the future of Western democracies. But we do lack a positive political strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union.

It is this failure of concerted definition which causes the trouble. In its absence the alliance can be thrown temporarily off-balance by some essentially peripheral problem. Examples, as they say, are superfluous.

I am not going to propose a brand new policy. There is no need; the elements for an effective strategy are already there. But I am going to try to draw them together, and suggest ways in which a more confident and consistent strategy can bind the alliance more closely together.

We need such a strategy, not just for its own sake, but to reassure our own people and our friends in the world that our policy on East-West relations is clear, cogent, and in safe and responsible hands.

The origins of the alliance are inextricably intermeshed in the postwar economic and political nexus. In the late '40s, the stability of Western Europe was under threat from the inside, while its external security was challenged by the grim Eastern autocracy of Stalin.

Europe at the time was faced with economic and perhaps political collapse, and she was still enfeebled by the virus of disunity and the old antagonisms which had led to two world wars.

The economic, political and military initiatives of the late '40s and early '50s sprang from the same source: the spirit of postwar cooperation and the will to resist. And together they formed a coherent, strategic response. There was a strong defensive element in our postwar actions. We had not yet got the measure of our new adversary, or of our own capacity for recovery.

Today we are entitled to approach our problems, and particularly those of East- West relations, with more self-confidence. We are now in a position of considerable strength, not only militarily, but economically and politically, too.

Confidence should not, of course, shade into complacency. But it is perhaps a good moment to reflect coolly on the strength of the West as well as on our weaknesses, and to compare them with those of the Russians.

Taking stock in this way can be a heartening exercise. True, the West has serious economic and social problems. But our economic malaise is more cyclical than caused by our system, and our social troubles are soluble.

The Russians, by contrast, are subsiding into a slow crisis because of their system. The economy and the ideology of communism are moribund. What we are witnessing in Poland, and imperceptibly in the corpulent body politic of the Soviet Union, is the onset of rigor mortis in a whole system -- limb by limb.

It would be a mistake to dramatize the pace or extent of this process, or of its political repercusions in the short term. The Russian people have reminded us often of their enormous endurance and patience. They endured serfdom under the czars until little more than a century ago. They also endured untold hardships in both world wars.

Nor should we underestimate the efficiency of the vast machine of repression that the Soviet state represents. But there is no longer any doubt about the decline of the East and of the Soviet empire. Moscow is already a decaying Byzantium. But this decay will take place over decades.

The natural response would be to rejoice at the troubles of our adversaries, but we should not rejoice too much, or too soon.

In the first place it would be wrong to neglect the human dimension. None of us takes any pleasure in the poverty and deprivation of the Soviet and Eastern European people.

Then there are the dangers of inertia and complacency. The Soviet Union has built up an awesome military machine and has shown that she is prepared to use it. She still has the means and the motivation to project her power into large areas of the world.

Soviet communism is like a particularly unappealing piece of Victorian architecture. It is a ponderous and deeply unaesthetic structure. When unstable it can be dangerous. But for the moment it is sustained by its own inertia, and would not be an easy job for the demolition expert. To drive at it with a bulldozer would be a bit risky -- but deathwatch beetles can work miracles over the years, without help from outside.

Nor can there be any question of taking a bulldozer to the Soviet empire. We must face squarely the complex moral and political dilemmas developments in Eastern Europe pose for the West. Whatever we do, the Soviet Union will accuse us of subverting these countries. They are bound to say this because they cannot contemplate the enormity of their own failure in the area.

Free societies have a power of attraction of which it would be perverse to be ashamed; we should not be afraid to subvert by example.

Our prime concern must be for the peoples of these countries themselves. We have a historical duty and a political and moral responsibility to uphold their right to freedom and self-determination, but our policy in Eastern Europe, as elsewhere, must be to encourage reform rather than revoluton. Sporadic convulsions, ruthlessly put down by the Russians and their clients, cannot be in the interests of the peoples of these countries themselves, not to speak of East-West stability.

But the fact is that there is a limit to what the West can do to influence events there. The Russians must learn, and we must do what we can to teach them over the years, that their security interests are not best served by an endless cycle of repression, but by giving the people of Eastern Europe a voice in their own destiny.

And so it is the open societies of the West which have the real strength -- and the responsibilities.

The same is true in the military field. I have a great deal of respect for the technicians of defense, and for soldiers. I used to be one myself. But sometimes I worry. I worry when the solid, simple facts seem to be in danger of erosion by a potent combination of passionate political advocacy and technocratic obscurity.

It is a plain, simple fact that for a third of a century the alliance has succeeded in its primary aim of deterring an attack on Western Europe. This has been achieved by a combination of military strength and political will, as well as by a prudent reluctance by Moscow to engage in such a venture. We must ensure that none of these factors changes. If they do not the prospect of war will remain remote.

But do not let us overlook the size of existing nuclear forces in the West, not to speak of their accuracy. Look, too, at the quality of our conventional forces, and take into account the advantages enjoyed by the armies of a free alliance compared with the conscripted countries of the Warsaw pact.

As for morale, the British, with European and American support, have just sailed 8,000 miles to protect a handful of their kith and kin on a remote island. Does anyone doubt that we would fight to protect 55 million at home? Or that other members of the alliance would do likewise?

It seems to me extraordinary, and against the dictates of common sense, for anyone to claim that the West in military terms is in danger of sinking to its knees.

Now, my conclusion is not that we can afford to be generous in Geneva. But I am saying that these talks should be conducted in an atmosphere of calm confidence, and that the broader political dimension of East-West relations should be constantly at the forefront of the Western mind. It would be wrong to approach these important negotiations on the military defensive -- on the military alert -- and for our dialogue with the East to be hag- ridden by fear of military inferiority.

A third area of Western strength lies in the underlying cohesion of the alliance itself.

It is undeniable that relations between America and Europe have recently been complicated by economic factors. But I do not believe rivalry in agricultural exports or in steel- making will spell the death of the alliance any more than the famous pipeline proved to be the straw that broke our back. That would be a Marxist analysis, for Marx was of course convinced that economic competition between so called "imperialists" would lead to endless political contention and to recurring wars.

But once again that was a long time ago -- and it was never true anyway.

The caricaturists of the Atlantic alliance have had their day; Europe is neither neutralist nor defeatest, and the real America is not tempted by the mirage of isolationalism.

Look at the major countries of West Europe. France is a special but a solid ally, who takes her security responsibilities with the utmost seriousness. She has no anti-nuclear movement to speak of, and her experiment with socialism has left her vision of the realities of Western security needs unimpaired.

The German people have now made their choice freely, and they hardly seem to be racing back to Rapallo. The Italians are as quietly determined as ever. And the British are not exactly a soft touch.

Western governments must seek out the roots of confusion and self-doubt which gave rise to much of this mood (of despair about the alliance), and do their best to dispel it.

We must explain the paradox of Soviet power. It is no good just telling people one moment that the Russians are 10 feet tall, and the next that they have feet of clay.

We must also breed a mood of sober self- confidence about the military balance. We must know ourselves when enough is enough, and we must have the patience as well as the power to dissuade the Russians from their antiquated habits of over insurance.

And finally we must make absolutely clear our belief that arms control is in everyone's self-interest, not only economically but in terms of real security.

As a defensive alliance NATO has been a self-evident success. But it must be an imaginative alliance too. It is not just a pooling of arms, with the Americans throwing in the biggest stake. We must pool our ideas as well, and forge these into sound and consistent policies.

What should these policies be? Hobbes' first law of nature, it is often forgotten, was "to seek peace, and to follow it." It is only the second which gives man the right to self-defense, "by all means we can."

The West must be true to its own values. It is the Leninist tradition which is one of conflict, and not cooperation.

Our own tradition must be for the peaceful resolution of potential conflict through energetic dialogue. The notion that we should face the Russians down in a silent war of nerves, broken only by bursts of megaphoncce diplomacy, is based on a misconception of our own values, of Soviet behavior, and of the anxious aspirations of our own peoples.

There are those who regard dialogue itself as dangerous -- and so it might be if we were talking from a clear position of weakness. But armed as we are, and with the long-term structural advantages the West enjoys, who can possibly claim that this was the case? Talking to an equally heavily armed but far less scrupulous adversary is not a concession: It is common prudence.

The pursuit and exercise of pure power can be very dangerous. Even if it was ever successful in the past -- which I am inclined to doubt -- such so-called realism is no longer realistic in the nuclear age.

Nor can we afford a crude, one-dimensional moralism. John Foster Dulles once said that there could be no question of "a self- serving deal with the despotic leaders of captive peoples." I wonder. The right deals with the right despots can often be in our own interests, as well as those under their yoke.

I am not in favor of negotiations for their own sake. They should achieve results for the West. We should talk to the Russians at every level of the imperative for peace. We have the means and have demonstrated the resolution to give edge to our message.

One of the advantages of talking to people is that you can say clearly and directly, and in private if that is likely to be more effective, exactly what you think. You could, for example, begin by telling the Russians that Afghanistan and Cambodia are intolerable, that they are making a mess of Poland, that we shall counter resolutely attempts to inflame problems in the Third World, and that we shall not be cowed by the SS20s in Europe.

But in our search for solutions we must take into account the nature of our adversary: the history of the Russian people, the obsession of the czars, and now of their communist heirs, with internal and external security. We must also take due account of the legitimate security interests of one of the world's superpowers. But we must make it equally clear that these interests cannot be secured by overriding the sovereignty and personality of other nation states.

Finally, we could make it clear that new opportunities for cooperation could arise if Moscow were to put a stop to expansionism.

One of the basic principles of Western democracies is the belief in the free market and in free trade. We should be ready to do business with the Russians when it benefits both sides and when the Russians make it possible. Indiscriminate sanctions against the Soviet Union are neither feasible nor desirable.

In any case, it is not our aim to drive the Russians further into nationalistic and militaristic introversion: to give them a pretext for strengthening their economic might over East Europe, or their repression of the aspirations of their own people.

The Soviet leaders must be offered a clear choice between the political and economic confrontation which will inevitably result from continued expansionism, and the prospect of a more positive relationship.

We must see whether they understand the crucial need for political confidence-building measures in arms control, on Afghanistan and Cambodia, on East Europe, and on the treatment of their own people. We should make it clear that any such moves would be matched by a swift and positive Western response.

I am as unsentimental as anyone on international relations, where human nature is rarely shown to its best advantage. But I do believe that a human element is indispensible between nations, as in institutions.

Reflect for a moment on the fact that neither of the present leaders of the super- powers has ever set foot in the sphere of the other. Khrushchev was not my hero. But it is worth recalling the impact on him of the sight of an American grain field.

I am not preaching a return to detente pure and simple. Detente was never pure and simple anyway -- though I confess I find it hard to understand how both sides can have lost by it. My guess is that it was either a draw, or that the West won on points.

But it is time for a new approach to East- West relations. Experience has taught us not to harbor illusions about a short-term change of heart in Moscow. We therefore need to achieve at least a change of behavior in the longer term by persistent alliance diplomacy. And it must be a policy that makes maximum use of all the cards in the West's hands: of the stability of the democratic system; of our resolution to maintain our defenses; of our relative economic strength; and of our political confidence, maturity and sense of global responsibility.