THE HUGE DEFENSE budget, the rush to send our planes, ships and soldiers to the world's trouble spots, the great American preoccupation with "strength" and influence in far-flung corners of the globe -- all of this is justified in the name of "the national interest." But what really is the American national interest? It's a question we rarely even ask, let alone seriously debate.

In fact the "national security" policies pursued by our last eight presidents have yielded no obvious benefit for the American nation as a whole. When the Cold War era began, ordinary Americans had no reason to believe that their homeland was in any serious danger; today our homeland is subject to destruction in the next 30 minutes. That, we might say, is the bottom line of all the hundreds of billions spent, all the blood spilled, all the energy devoted to pursuing a skewed conception of the national interest since the end of World War II.

Today the literal national security is more palpably at risk than at any time since at least the Civil War, and probably since 1776. Yet the last time we held a serious public debate about American security objectives in advance of presidential action that set a policy before it could be thoughtfully considered was in 1948-49, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson solemnly assured the Senate that NATO was not a military alliance which required the permanent stationing of U.S. troops in Europe.

Now we face defense budgets of $400 billion a year and the elixir of space wars as the "final solution" to our security problems. It is past time to reexamine critically our defense and national security budgets, including the narrow commercial, bureaucratic or military interests that they serve. A continuous debate on the national interest will help us distinguish long-term and enduring needs of the American people from short-term requirements of particular special interests. Such a debate might even save the national future from oblivion.

A new debate should begin with the realization that the United States is a different country than it was in 1945, when all this began -- a fact that ought to be reflected (but isn't) in our relations with other nations. We are very, very far from being as powerful compared to the other countries of the world as we were then.

Of course American corporate and military involvement now extends to much of the world (and even into space), but can anyone say that the everyday life of Americans has improved as a result? We continue to operate on the assumption that what is good for Exxon or the Department of Defense really is good for the nation, but this is foolish. None of the "successes" of the interest groups that dominate our public life has stemmed the decline of our cities, of our industrial base, or of our national support systems such as education.

Those elements of American society that set the postwar definition of the national interest no longer dominate the country as they did then. In recent years we have changed our internal arrangements in crucial ways. At the end of World War II America was an apartheid society by law. There were virtually no women active in our public life. The Chicano population was not vocal or organized. The Catholic Church in America was not hostile to nuclear weapons or cold or hot war with nations caught in revolutionary struggle. Does this new America really have the same national interest as that old one?

Today there are many Americans who used to play no role at all in setting national priorities who are no longer willing to be compliant and silent when they perceive that national policies contradict their own values or interests. It is these Americans -- newly enfranchised by the postwar changes in American society -- who deserve a loud voice in a new debate on the real national interest.

Our postwar leaders forged alliances and pacts which were brilliantly executed, but which in the present context deepen our real problem. Contrary to one of George Washington's wisest axioms we adopted and encouraged the mistaken doctrine of permanent hostility. In the Cold War years our leaders have vacillated between hubris and feelings of impotence. The executive prepared for every manner of war and fought large wars without a constitutional mandate. In the process, we changed the character of the American government, our constitutional process, and derailed our social programs.

The mode of military weaponry, the style of armed force, the emphasis on that unholy trinity of defense, the strategic triad, the buildup of conventional forces, without reference to the actual needs of our own society, economically, politically, socially and psychologically, lays Americans open to destroying what we seek to protect; namely, our land, people and institutions.

The adage that we prepare for war in order to have peace is contradicted by virtually every war in history. Indeed, if one seeks a platitude upon which to base a policy it would be better to recognize William Graham Sumner's phrase that we reap what we sow. "What we prepare for is what we shall get." If military buildups remain the fundamental aspect of our national security policy and if we continue to insist that war, nuclear strategy and military or covert intervention are the central tools of statecraft, we will never be able to revive an ethic that cherishes peace and deals with war not as part of politics, but as the deformation of politics.

It is foolhardy to believe that the present alliance system can last through the 21st century built on the terror of nuclear weapons, missiles, permanent military confrontation and the threat of space wars.

Arms and armchair strategists love to play the politics of balance of power. Our national security bureaucrats and policymakers revel in playing one nation against another. It is thought good for the American national interest if China and the Soviet Union are at swords' points, and advantageous if military and economic dependencies develop between the United States and the Third World. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is little more than hubris to think that we control the actions of even small nations.

Instead there is a familiar, repetitive cycle. First the United States promises financial and military aid to a Third World country, and with them we pledge -- formally or implicitly -- unending loyalty (which of course we cannot deliver in practice). The smaller state's leadership then sees the United States as its guarantor for all activities, sometimes including the repression of its own populace (as in the Phillipines and Guatemala). If the client leadership has an expansionary appetite, it takes America's commitments as a blank check for future action. On the other hand, our leaders must soon seek ways to limit commitment, to extricate the United States from those of its client's activities that it does not really want to endorse.

As Hans Morgenthau has put it, "The powerful nation (then) finds that it must support interests not its own and that it is unable to compromise on issues that are vital not to itself, but only to its ally." This is the case with U.S. relations with Israel, where the policymakers are caught between our justifiable concern for the good of a people and nation with the particular policies of a leadership that has its own agenda.

In U.S. relations toward Central America, the Reagan administration seeks a primarily military solution through military aid and increased levels of violence to the detriment of long-term interests. The habit of mind that produces that approach also causes us to press Japanese rearmament and accept Taiwan's arms claims even though they undercut world stability and U.S. interests in Asia.

Our national security leaders have failed to take adequate cognizance of the changed meaning of power in international politics. Thus, American leadership after President Kennedy's death and throughout the Vietnam war committed the cardinal sin of assuming that military force would accomplish political victory. This view did not take into account the nature of wars of national resistance and decolonization. Such wars are invariably political, and the winner on the battlefield is not necessary the winner in practice. The French, for example, "won" the war against the Algerians. But their victory meant nothing politically.

American intervention militarily or covertly in Third World nations invariably increases devastation, and in no way will solve their political problems of hunger, oppression, and disease. Nor will increased levels of violence result in stability or in restoring oligarchy to its former dominance. As Martin Luther King Jr. understood so well, the power of the police in enforcing unjust laws will not be effective where there are movements of large numbers of people. The "powerlessness" of King was of far greater authority than that of Sheriff Clark.

This principle also applies to international politics. American statesmen would do well to court moral authority as well as economic and military authority in the affairs of nations. This view does not mean the United States should militarily overthrow apartheid regimes or militarily assist liberation movements. It does require a different time clock which will enable us to see international politics in the context of long-term historical changes. We should embrace the human rights principles of Martin Luther King Jr. in our foreign policy. This would mean -- among other things -- genuinely embracing the values proclaimed in various covenants on human rights that we have yet to ratify.

Crises in the Third World do not require immediate attention or engagement when one government replaces another or civil resistance causes a shift in the basic values of a society. Our habitual offering of military assistance, and our continuous attempts at "nation-building" as in El Salvador, are based on misperceptions of the struggles in these nations.

There is a standard of behavior that the United States would be well advised to adopt. It is an old principle of international law. Stay out of civil wars, and recognize the winner. It requires the wisdom of staying out of struggles we don't understand. Our national interest requires patience and waiting in making decisions during crises which appear acute. The curious irony of our time is that we have assumed trigger-happy responses, almost mechanical ones, in crisis situations that actually require deliberation, delay and willingness to allow diplomacy to work.

Of course we have an excuse for all of our mistaken behavior of the past 38 years. Our excuse is "the Russians." If we can blame them for all that's gone wrong in the postwar world, at least our consciences will be clear.

Yes, but our heads will be muddled. Alas, it probably is true that some Soviet officials actually applaud the course of the last 38 years, which have left their country at the top of the international heap as the widely recognized "second superpower." But the riches of the Soviet continent and the talents of the Russian people would have put them in that position anyway -- De Toqueville saw it coming 150 years ago.

The sad fact is that today's mad balance of nuclear terror was not inevitable, it was the product of choices made by responsible people in Washington and Moscow. Now responsible people should confront the question of how to break the "entangling tango" of the two superpowers. Professor John Lewis Gaddis has noted that in this folie Ma deux, it often seems that Moscow takes its cues from Washington. "Thus," he writes, "the Russians built a big missile system after we did, they built a big navy after we did . . . and they now, in Afghanistan, even have their own Vietnam."

Today the Russians have a number of incentives to give up their place in the folie beyond that of following our lead, if we were to do so first. The brutal invasion of Afghanistan has turned into a gigantic flop that has cost the Soviets' reputation dearly in the Third World. The increasing cost of armaments to the Soviets, evidenced by the ever larger share they take of Soviet GNP, is a sign of deep strain between consumer demand and defense production. The yearning among young people for a freer life, symbolized by the affair of the son of a Soviet diplomat in Washington who apparently toyed with "defection," and the increasing official tolerance in Moscow for open expression of popular discontent, even among workers, are obvious signs of internal pressures on the ruling Communist Party gerontocracy.

The Soviet Union seems to be entering a period of ferment, when it will be attracted to options that allow it to accommodate change with a minimum of internal upheaval. It can be expected to look for new long-term international accommodations and new rules of international security so that internal change can be "smoothly" managed. Already, by signing SALT agreements and volunteering to sign new ones the Soviets have signaled an interest in exploring ways to end the arms race.

If we could present the Russians with a new set of policy objectives that were consistent with our own interests and with the present character of American society, they would be more likely to respond favorably because of their own new frame of reference. And of course, other nations would be quick to see the merit of a system of security which decreased the role of the superpowers as ex cathedra arbiters of world politics.

The world's deteriorating international system should be a warning signal that immediate and dramatic action must be taken to establish new rules of international behavior. In the last nine years there have been at least nine interventions by one nation into another. This international anarchy is breeding disaster.

Our policy makers have mistakenly believed that the Western alliance is primarily a military alliance, glued together by military strategies, nuclear weapons and the like. In fact the military aspects of the alliance -- such as the decision to deploy Pershing missiles in West Germany -- invariably lead to greater division among the Western democracies, which are and should be allied by common values, not common militarism.

Actually, today's NATO "strategy" is more the product of bureaucratic inertia than serious military thinking. Does anyone believe that the U.S. Congress of 1983 would agree to send 7,000 nuclear weapons to Western Europe -- the number that has wound up there virtually by accident? Does anyone believe the nations of Western Europe would now accept 7,000 nuclear weapons if the United States offered to send them?

The time is propitious for studying one American Cold War diplomatic success which allowed the United States to cut its military budget and which guaranteed freedom and stability in Central Europe. I speak of the Austrian State treaty signed in 1955 by the great powers, including the Soviet Union, and which resulted in the removal of foreign troops -- including Soviet occupation troops -- from Austrian soil.

American security would be best served economically and politically if the Warsaw Pact and NATO Alliance initiated discussions to transform their respective regional pact arrangements as the first stage of a world security program that deemphasizes military forces and places emphasis on disarmament and the construction of a viable international political order.

Who remembers that in 1961 the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to a framwork for acheiving general and complete disarmament? Known as the McCloy-Zorin agreement, this successful negotiation led to both nations tabling their respective proposals in 1962. Unfortunately, these discussions were superseded by concern with more "realistic" and incremental measures which accepted arms control as the anly way to deal with the arms race. But arms control has aof fatal flaw. It guarantees that an arms race will break out in weapons that are not covered by the specific agreement.

It should be recalled that the United Nations was meant to transcend the alliance system so that a world security and disarmament arrangement could be established.

Of course the United Nations is now viewed as "a joke" by our hard-headed strategists, the ones who have so eagerly brought us to the current impasse in human affairs. Our Tories in the l8th century also thought a United States of America would be a joke, impossible to manage, impossible to meld the interests of conflicting peoples. But isn't the arms race and the current, mad international situation the cruel joke?

The reality is that if the U.N. did not exist, it would have to be created. It is the one place where the world seeks to find a means of expressing its highest aspirations and its real needs, bringing both into a forum where practical, positive results are possible.

To those who now grin knowingly that I have come to my own dead end, I can only say, let's have a real debate. Let's put it to the world's peoples whether they want more of what we've had since 1945, or more of what we dreamed of when the U.N. charter was written. Those with the hubris to believe that the status quo would prevail in such a debate misread both human nature and the deep anxieties of the first age in human history that can realistically be described as perhaps the last age in human history.