The formulation and execution of foreign policy has traditionally rested on four pillars: power, purpose, resources and human ingenuity. Today, when our sense of national purpose is so clear, our power and resolve so firm and our involvement in world affairs so vital to our national security, it is painful to see the disastrous effect budgetary cuts are having on our capacity to conduct foreign relations. The costs to undo this damage will surely be much higher than any "savings" today.

Resource constraints are dictating an American withdrawal from world leadership. This is totally at odds with our military, moral and economic standing in the world, and it seriously threatens our security.

A story is told of the secretary of state in the early 19th century who, after not hearing for several months from the U.S. minister to France, reportedly exclaimed: "If we don't hear from him within three weeks, send him a strong letter."

Today, foreign policy cannot be conducted by slow boat. We are in the midst of an information and communications revolution. The volume of information available for analysis, its importance to national security and the speed of its transmission have transformed the role of our diplomats. Policy makers need to know in "real time" what is happening around the world; so do defense planners, commercial representatives, health officials and many others. Today's American diplomat must produce more data and faster analysis.

The United States is blessed with extraordinarily talented and dedicated diplomats who serve the national interest abroad. Imbued with a sense of national purpose and coping with problems ranging from acculturation to terrorism, our Foreign Service officers are the first line of defense of the republic. The thought of having to thin out this defensive line is sobering. Yet in 1986 the State Department was forced to close seven overseas posts; this year we are faced with decisions that may force further withdrawals of American presence -- two embassies and 13 consulates.

In the face of stringent budgets, we have tried to cut things rather than people. For example, purchase of necessary equipment and furniture was pushed from one fiscal year to the next in order to delay the elimination of Foreign Service positions. Having exhausted these mechanisms, we now face the loss of services of 1,200 people -- all this because of an anticipated $84 million budgetary shortfall. When the nation faces a budget deficit of nearly $150 billion, such an amount seems almost trivial.

When these major pillars of our policy-making capability are weakened, what impact does this have on U.S. national security and interests? Our presence abroad and our judicious use of resources around the world have netted impressive gains recently. Our personnel and programs are contributing to a worldwide resurgence of democracy and a turn by many toward free market economics. Our personnel represent U.S. interests, analyze and recommend, negotiate agreements, assist U.S. citizens and help friends. Can we afford to reduce this presence abroad?

The curtailment of operations of the Department of State is just part of a larger disaster looming in our overall international affairs budget, which includes the operating budgets of all the other foreign affairs agencies as well as our military and economic assistance programs, both bilateral and multilateral. In FY 1985, appropriations for international affairs were $22.7 billion. Today, under the FY 1988 congressional budget resolution, only $17.2 billion would be available -- a 24 percent cut. After inflation and exchange rate adjustments (a particular problem in maintaining diplomatic missions abroad), this reduction is even more severe.

Security assistance has been particularly hard hit, declining from $9.5 billion in FY 1985 to just over $8 billion under the congressional budget resolution. Because Congress insists we use half a billion of this to fund the Guaranty Reserve Fund for foreign military sales -- a bookkeeping transaction that appropriates money to return it to the Treasury -- the effective cut is more than $2 billion. After adjusting for earmarks mandated by Congress, we have been forced to cut back or eliminate assistance to countries in which we enjoy base rights and military access agreements. We face outright elimination of important humanitarian and developmental programs in Africa and Asia.

A withdrawal by the United States from world leadership would have a negative, snowball effect on our security. Countries that look to the United States for encouragement and support will be left empty-handed. Where the United States cannot produce, opportunities will be given to the Soviet Union, support for our interests from friends and allies will decline, and initiatives we have taken will wither. The question we need to ponder is whether the United States -- stripped of its capacity to respond effectively in a fast-changing world and withdrawing from world affairs -- will be seen by our friends as relevant to their needs in the years ahead.

The debate over this foreign affairs issue is sometimes cast in bureaucratic terms or ascribed to a failure of management to curb waste. Surely, the State Department, like other agencies, must strive to cut fat, as we have been doing.

But the real issue is not over a few dollars saved here or there. Rather, it has to do with our ability and willingness to continue to shoulder the burdens of world leadership. It has to do with the advancement abroad of our many interests. It has to do with the ongoing struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. It has to do with our ability to pursue a foreign policy based on the strong pillars of power, purpose, resources and human ingenuity.

The challenge facing Congress and the administration is to work together to ensure that the pillars of our foreign policy remain strong. Working together means continuing our dialogue with Congress to improve our role as the world's leading force for progress, peace and human dignity. We need understanding and support from our legislators.

The writer is secretary of state.