As controversy envelops almost every foreign policy issue, a growing nostalgia develops for the spirit of compromise and bipartisanship that marked America's entry into world affairs in the decade following the Second World War. But the nostalgia misinterprets America's current dilemma. During the period of bipartisanship, there was agreement on fundamentals; compromise adjusted differences over method. Today, conflicts are philosophical; compromises are likely to combine the disadvantages of every course of action -- witness the Reagan-Wright agreement on Nicaragua. So long as that conflict persists, America will continue to wallow in self-absorption.

In designing its foreign policy, any nation must answer at least three questions: 1) What is its concept of national security? In other words, what international changes is it prepared to resist? 2) What is its national purpose? That is, what goals will it seek to achieve? 3) What resources are available for either of these ends?

The American leaders of the bipartisan post-World War II era answered these questions with great assurance. Their concept of security was formed by Hitler's aggression with organized forces attacking across recognized military frontiers and the failure of the democracies to resist at an early stage. Their political goals were legacies of the New Deal, whose dominant experience was the threat to political institutions produced by a world depression. The leaders of that period could implement these assumptions because the United States had a nuclear monopoly and for two decades afterward a vast margin of superiority enabling it to assume the role of world policeman without analyzing its long-term implications. Moreover, America could overwhelm economic problems with resources because it produced 52 percent of the world's gross national product. The immediate postwar era seemed to vindicate America's historic image of itself as chosen by destiny to spread its virtue to the rest of the world.

Two decades of domestic discord have eroded this self-assurance, and history has changed the circumstances in which it was applied. A nation that produced over half of the world's GNP represented the balance of power all by itself. But today, when the United States generates barely a fourth of the world's GNP, concern with equilibrium and with setting priorities has become as necessary as it is distasteful to the traditional American approach to international affairs.

The American domestic drama for two decades has been the inability to reconcile traditional expectations with realities. Ever since the collapse of the effort of the Nixon administration to base foreign policy on some concept of permanent national interest, the public debate has been polarized between those who seek to turn all international conflicts into a confrontation between good and evil and those who believe that America's contribution to world politics is not power but virtue. Both schools of thought are hostile to a geopolitical analysis.

East-West relations illustrate this point. They are being treated either as a morality play or as an aberration caused by temporary conditions, by the defective character of Soviet leaders or by their ideologically based suspiciousness. Whatever their starting point, American presidents have, in the end, opted for the psychiatric explanation of Soviet conduct. They have sought to cultivate improved personal relations with their Soviet counterparts as a key to world peace. From Khrushchev to Gorbachev, this has focused the domestic American debate on the significance of reform in Moscow, on whether the Soviet leaders have become more enlightened rather than on Soviet international conduct.

In the entire postwar period, there has been amazingly little analysis of the content of peaceful coexistence -- the avowed goal of U.S. national policy in all administrations. What exactly is it that America wants the Soviet Union to stop doing? What is the American notion of cooperative conduct? In the contemporary situation, is glasnost or human rights progress enough, or are other changes necessary? Can four centuries of Russian expansionism be due to personalities, or do they reflect more permanent geopolitical and strategic elements? The absence of criteria causes domestic disputes to fester. The reluctance to endow peaceful coexistence with political content produces a near obsession with arms control, which confuses symptoms with causes and threatens to open up a gap between strategy and arms-control policy in which each checkmates the other.

For two decades at least, the dilemmas of nuclear parity have been obvious. In the past, nations went to war because the consequences of defeat were worse than the consequences of conflict. But when general nuclear war guarantees tens of millions of casualties in a matter of hours, this equation is far from self-evident. Yet strategists and arms controllers pursue incompatible courses in seeking to escape the dilemma. Strategists seek to resurrect the period of atomic superiority, while the arms controllers make little provision for the possibility that, for the Soviets, arms control may not be a cooperative enterprise but a strategy to weaken the democracies that are still being considered as adversaries.

Until recently, the strategists dominated the executive branch and strove for accurate counterforce nuclear weapons, largely blocked by Congress, and for the Strategic Defense Initiative, which is at best a decade away. The arms controllers dominate congressional thinking and too many of them resist accurate counterforce weapons, strategic defense or any other limited application of nuclear weapons; they argue that this would open the door to a nuclear war that in the end cannot be limited.

But it is not possible to make the initiation of nuclear war absurd while relying on it as the principal deterrent to Soviet preponderance in conventional forces. One or the other course must be modified. After the prospective arms-control negotiations are completed, when warheads are reduced, strategic defense is postponed for at least a decade and uncertain thereafter, how will the United States implement its declared strategy? Does anyone believe the democracies will build up their conventional forces under current conditions of fiscal stringency when the new secretary of defense is being widely praised for his willingness to reduce the defense budget? In short, strategy and arms control are on different, potentially incompatible tracks, each with its own constituency. Sooner or later, a grave price will have to be paid for the paramountcy of domestic politics over national security considerations.

A society divided over how to deal with the relatively straightforward problem of overt military aggression will necessarily have even greater difficulty with more ambiguous challenges. America no longer has a bipartisan foreign policy because either it is divided over fundamental objectives or the objectives on which there is consensus reflect no recognizable international reality. If there exists a bipartisan agreement on any subject it is on the need to promote the spread of democracy globally. But how realistic is this objective? That the United States prefers democratic regimes to repressive ones goes without saying. That America should be prepared to pay some price for its preferences is also obvious. But it is dangerous to forget that Western democracy is homegrown in only a small corner of the globe and that it took several hundred years to evolve there. It was fostered by special characteristics of Western civilization that have so far not been duplicated elsewhere.

No other civilization has developed such absolute concepts of justice and such an insistence on the limits of temporal power. No other group of societies has evolved a concept of natural and religious law defined by hierarchies not controlled by temporal authorities. No other history has witnessed such a constant struggle for freedom in ever new forms. In the West, the accumulation of excessive power at the center has been the principal concern of political theorists; in most other societies the concern has been to buttress, not to weaken or balance central authority.

But to what extent are these concepts a guide for day-to-day policy? Hardly a daypasses without some congressional stricture against some foreign country or other or some administration pronouncement as to appropriate domestic conduct all over the globe. Oddly enough, as American resources are shrinking the drive toward global intervention seems to be increasing.

There are, to be sure, egregious human rights violations that must be protested and, if necessary, penalized. But can we really sustain the role as schoolmaster of domestic politics everywhere in the world? Do we really know enough to advise and sometimes press simultaneously on domestic politics from Asia to Latin America? The implication that domestic reform is America's overriding foreign policy objective has two consequences: actual negotiations with, for example, Nicaragua take on the abstract quality of a political science seminar on elusive and reversible concepts of democratization, while more tangible subjects related to national security such as Cuban and Eastern-bloc advisers and the size of Nicaragua's armed forces are neglected. In the longer term, this attitude becomes the alibi for an incipient isolationism by providing an escape into choices involving little apparent risk.

This global interventionism works best with respect to friendly regimes dependent on U.S. support and least well with hostile ones protected by the U.S. reluctance to use force. In either event, the American capacity to undermine is not matched by a capacity to construct. Revolutions are made by a coalition of resentments. But when the demolition is completed, a fierce struggle between the previous allies is nearly inevitable. Given American public and congressional attitudes toward covert action and, even more, American ignorance of the intangibles of political processes, the risk is great that America may be making the world safe not for democracy but for the most highly organized militant and ruthless groups.

America's unresolved contradictions risk opening up a huge gap between ends and means in the pursuit of incompatible objectives. This would be serious enough in a bipolar world. But Japan, Western Europe, China and possibly India all have the capacity to become major players by the end of this century. As American military and economic preeminence declines, they are less likely to listen to American preachment and apt to return to the balance-of-power policies that have shaped their history. This in turn may accelerate America's turn toward isolationism, thus undoing the creative efforts of a generation.

Three years ago, when President Reagan won an overwhelming reelection victory, I wrote that he had a unique opportunity to reconcile the American domestic debate and to take bipartisanship beyond the least common denominator. This has not happened. But the president can still leave a historic legacy by raising the debate to a conceptual level. Precisely because his is a lame-duck administration, he can afford to recall America to its vision and its duties. He has nothing to lose by raising the issue of the relationship between power and diplomacy, of the content of peace and the nature of global progress. And the presidential candidates who now claim to have ''solutions'' can serve their country better by participating in a national debate over philosophy and concepts rather than gimmicks. If this does not happen, America may become the scold of international politics while losing the capacity to shape events.