IN RECENT years, Republican Sen. Mark O. Hatfield won congressional approval for a foreign-aid appropriation to send 2.5 million poplars from his native Oregon to Nepal. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) called for an immediate cutoff of aid to the Philippines because some of its citizens eat dogs. And the Democratic-controlled House voted to stop aid to countries that do not provide adequate airport security.

It is time for advocates of U.S. foreign-assistance programs to face the facts: Foreign aid, a bright vision for promoting a world that might be, is stretched too thin and loaded down with meaningless ornaments. It is also pitifully small.

Getting aid through Congress has become a service to the military establishment, which wants to sell armaments overseas, and to narrow special interests.

The arguments considered necessary to secure passage have become part of the problem, contributing to public confusion about the value of foreign aid.

Under these circumstances those who care about foreign aid have good reason to explore ways of rebuilding the program from the ground up.

Contrary to public perception, developmental aid -- assistance designed to foster economic growth -- accounts for a small share of the federal budget, less than one cent out of every dollar. In real terms development assistance has declined by more than one-half since 1961, when the Agency for International Development (AID) was created.

Aid efforts now are on a par with U.S. government contributions abroad before any foreign aid program ever existed. Our quick survey shows that in 1919 United States non-military assistance amounted to at least 0.33 percent of the gross national product (GNP).

Today non-military economic assistance equals only 0.24 percent of the GNP. That puts the United States dead last among the industrialized countries in aid-giving.

The growth in foreign aid has come in military aid and in economic support or security assistance -- guns on the one hand and money paid to secure base rights in the Philippines or support key allies like Israel on the other -- but not in development assistance. Military aid jumped 81 percent between 1981 and 1986; security assistance increased 66 percent. Together military and security assistance now command two-thirds of the total $14-billion aid program.

Winning support for any program requires political give and take. That is part of our process and can be healthy. But a point can be reached when horse trading compromises the final objective and obscures priorities. Tying foreign aid to Filipino culinary habits is one part of the problem. But even relevant ideas can become albatrosses when they are hung indiscriminately on the foreign-aid program.

The current foreign-aid statute lists at least 33 separate objectives, ranging from promoting cooperatives to protecting endangered species.

Rather than spread the program over a large canvas in hopes of winning support from special interests, we need to broaden the constituency. Americans have good reasons to support foreign aid, if only leaders will present them.

The case for modern assistance programs has rested largely on security and political-stability concerns -- or, more to the point, anti-communism. Although serious leaders may argue that this is a useful goal, practically it is unreachable through aid and sows the seeds of public disillusionment with aid programs.

Dynamic aid programs seeking to create resilient societies must promote change, not stability. Moreover, if aid helps countries become strong enough to resist the blandishments of communists, then it must also create countries that can resist the blandishments of the United States.

The success of aid should not be measured by whether countries vote with us in the United Nations. The true measure of success should be whether countries develop economically. Using aid for other purposes makes as much sense as eating soup with a fork.

The humanitarian argument for aid, also a traditional rationale, is valid but, as experience has shown, of limited utility. Moreover, it misses the point. We cannot consider aid simply as a nice thing to do. It has become an imperative thing to do.

Aid, properly applied, is in our self-interest.

In our interdependent world, the economic problems of developing countries are our problems. The inability of poor countries to fight disease and protect their environments has an impact on our own health and environment. As a result of Third World desertification, we lose forever unique genetic material -- strains of wheat and other grains, for example -- needed to produce higher-yielding crop varieties in the United States.

Meanwhile, poor Bolivian farmers growing coca to feed their families cultivate our drug problem. Hunger drives illegal immigrants into this country. And lack of buying power and productive capacity in developing countries mean decreased export possibilities for us and fewer jobs.

This is not to say, as aid advocates often do, that Third World growth is always in our interest. Growth overseas creates global competitors, too.

But we cannot protect ourselves by ignoring developing countries. The way to protect ourselves is to foster long-term relations and a stake in their prosperity. Countries with solid development strategies can buy imports and that cam help U.S. factories.

The key is to distinguish between long- and short-range interests.

A perennial argument advanced for aid is that 80 cents out of every dollar is spent in the United States. That is disingenous. Those who believe in aid do not do so for that reason. More to the point, if aid is good because some of the money is spent in the United States, it is better if all of it is spent here on strictly domestic projects.

Parochial arguments for aid promote selfishness rather than a broader sense of our common interests. They also devalue aid programs in the eyes of the recipients.

Once we see that aid is in our interest, we can stop plastering AID logos on schools, dams and other projects funded overseas. The habit is as offensive as putting our own initials on the Christmas presents we give away each year. Realizing that aid is in the interest of recipient and donor alike, we can stop thinking of it as a temporary expedient and recognize that there will always be some other country or people whose conditions can be improved.

At the same time we can consider arrangements to make aid truly collaborative. One dramatic change in the last 25 years is the emergence of indigenous development institutions overseas capable of using resources effectively without detailed American direction. We must learn to help these organizations do the job of development.

"The folly of foreign aid since 1946," Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said on the Senate floor several years back, "is an alarming symptom of what is wrong with the federal government -- and the country."

Helms, certainly no supporter of foreign aid, had a point, if for all the wrong reasons. Until the government and the people put aid in a new perspective, not as a parochial interest but as a true national interest, it will limp along neither doing as well as it can nor as well as it should.

John Hamilton, a journalist, is author of "Main Street America and The Third World." John Sullivan was assistant administrator for Asia of the Agency for International Development in the Carter administration. Both have worked on the House Foreign Affairs Committe.