AFTER WORLD WARS I and II, hopes for the creation of a new world order rose. But old allies quarreled; new enmities arose; defeated powers plotted revenge. History didn't end.

Nor did it end when the Cold War, the third great international conflict of the century, appeared to conclude. Yet America's sense of its mission changed -- and it may change again when the fighting ends in the Persian Gulf.

George Bush has been leading what the administration increasingly thinks of as America's third great postwar attempt to build a global order based on international law and democratic values. At the end of the week, amid the first hints that a conclusion to the gulf war may be closer, the precise nature of this global order becomes an urgent question. More particularly, is America about to become -- perhaps tragically -- the infantry rather than the arsenal of democracy?

Unfortunately, President Bush faces a tougher task than Woodrow Wilson in 1918 or Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. The gulf war has demonstrated that weapons are more terrible and nations are more interdependent than ever. And we did not win the Cold War the way we won the world wars. We are not so badly off as the British were in 1919 when Keynes wrote of his victorious country: "We are at the dead season of our fortunes." But we do not have the economic and political clout that we had in the 1940s; we must learn to persuade where we used to command.

Yet today, in a country more richly endowed than any other with intelligence agencies, policy analysts, think tanks and experts military and diplomatic, our policy makers seemed to have little advance word of Iraq's intentions in the gulf. And they had virtually no warning that the Cold War landscape was about to disappear. We had no plans for economic reconstruction in Eastern Europe, no policy to deal with the possibility of a reforming communist regime in Moscow and little understanding of the changes in European politics that flow from German reunion. This is a great tragedy and a great scandal; thanks to this failure, our leadership has had to improvise policy on the run.

Thanks to this failure, much of the conceptual architecture of the Cold War remains in place -- from the way we think about containing our enemies to America's fundamental national strategy.

President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III got the main point right: The United States needs a global order. They have not seen the Soviet retreat as an excuse for the United States to withdraw from the rest of the world. They have chosen instead to remain in the mainstream of 20th century American foreign policy, opting for cooperative action through international institutions in the interest of the global order and under a framework of international law.

Yet partly because the United States was caught so flatfooted by the avalanche of change in the world, a transition to a new foreign policy is far from complete. To a disturbing degree, two assumptions that shaped U.S. policy during the Cold War continue to dominate our approach to a very different era.

The first of these concepts is containment. The United States never quite made up its mind during the Cold War whether it was communism or the Soviet Union we were trying to contain, but we believed that we faced a single determined opponent with clear global intentions. We also knew that, in the wake of World War II, none of the other traditional great powers could take the lead in forging a defensive alliance. Therefore the United States undertook the most complex and sustained diplomatic and military initiative in its history, weaving together a global system of alliances -- NATO, CENTO, SEATO -- against the common menace. Obviously, containing the Soviet Union can no longer serve as the linchpin of our international diplomatic strategy, but the new world order, as described by the president and secretary of state, is still oriented toward containment. The enemy is no longer communism, however. It has, we are told, become evil: instability, aggression and dictatorship in general and, for the moment, Saddam Hussein in particular.

We are moving to meet the new enemy in the same way we met the communist menace -- through a system of global alliances and by perceiving local events as episodes in an ongoing global conflict. If Saddam could not be stopped in the gulf, warned the administration, aggressors everywhere would take heart. Dominoes would fall.

We need to look more carefully than we have done at the consequences of a new round of containment. When the gulf war ends, what then? Is anti-communism to be replaced by anti-scoundrelism? Scoundrelism is even more prevalent than communism, and far less likely to be eradicated as a major factor in international relations. Saddam Hussein will not be the last person to challenge boundaries he doesn't like.

The shift from the Soviet expansionism to expansionism in general as the central challenge to U.S. foreign policy has already had major consequences. NATO worked because it committed its members to specific common action against a specific enemy. All the NATO states were worried about the Soviet Union, and all shared a clear interest in supporting an agreed-upon strategy for keeping the peace in Europe. With the gulf war, we are trying to convert NATO into a global alliance against a variety of targets. Not surprisingly, not all of our NATO allies have been enthusiastic about what amounts to a revolutionary change in the mission of the alliance. The Japanese, too, have been cool to the idea of converting the specific mutual obligations of our security treaty to a "blank check" global alliance of undefined scope. {See story on this page.}

The NATO powers do not always see the Middle East in the same way. In 1956 the United States was the most pro-Arab of the western powers, forcing France, Britain and Israel to terminate their attack on Nasser's Egypt. Today, the Europeans are generally more pro-Palestinian than the United States. Who can predict what will happen in the future -- and given these recurring differences in opinion, how can the NATO countries agree, in advance, to coordinate their foreign policies all over the world?

The same thing is true, in spades, for our allies in other parts of the world. The NATO countries, as nations go, have similar values, histories, social systems and interests. It is highly unlikely that indebted developing nations with rapid population growth will feel the same way about global order as developed creditor nations with aging populations. As we revamp our system of alliances for the post-Cold War world, we would be ill-advised to abandon specific, limited alliances for specific purposes in favor of vague and universal alliances to do the right thing.

Universal alliances, as we have been discovering in the gulf, are risky and unwieldy things. There is not only the discomfort at finding ourselves on the same side of the barricades as countries like Syria and Iran; there is the ever-present danger that this universal alliance will break apart. The Soviet Union and Iran have not been happy with the growing American presence in the gulf; Arab political support for the alliance could splinter. The second area in which Cold War thinking still dominates foreign policy has to do with our national strategy. Traditionally, the United States, like Britain before us, followed a balance-of-power strategy. Sheltered by the English Channel, Britain abstained from building up huge ground forces. Other economies were slowed down by the crushing burden of defense spending, while the British were free to expand their commercial relations and develop their industries. They did not seek to be the world's strongest power on land; merely to be the strongest at sea and to have the capability -- primarily diplomatic -- to exert a balancing influence on land. "Nous sommes des poissons," as Lord Salisbury once said in explaining Britain's position. "We are fish."

In 1880, Britain was incontestably the world's greatest power, but its army, whose duties included the occupation of its vast overseas empire, stood at 135,000 troops -- half the strength of the Austro-Hungarian army in 1880 and of the force that the United States today deploys, in peacetime, in Europe alone.

The United States was even better off than our British cousins. We had the ocean -- and the British Navy -- to separate us from the land wars of Europe. The result, for both Britain and the United States, was a self-sustaining, pay-as-you-go foreign policy. The commercial and economic rewards of this strategy in other words were sufficient to fund the military expenditures which it entailed.

Given the collapse of the traditional great powers after 1945 -- France, Germany, Japan and Great Britain itself -- we could no longer maintain the balance of power in Europe and Asia without massive and sustained commitments of ground forces. We dragged this heavy burden throughout the Cold War. In 1940, our total military strength was less than 270,000; our peacetime strength since then has rarely sunk below 750,000. After 1945, we became the massive power stuck with armies, and countries like Japan got rich using our old strategy.

During the Cold War, a doctrine very alien to traditional American foreign policy concepts crept into our councils. This held that military hegemony was the key to world power, and that world power was the key to economic success. Our Cold War build-up wasn't a necessary evil to meet a specific challenge: It was our destiny and our glory to spend more on the military than anybody else. This used to be the thinking of the enemies of the Anglophone powers: This was how people like Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon and the Kaiser used to think.

Our old heroes -- the Tudor kings and queens, the Pitts, Washingtons, the Roosevelts and the Churchills -- saw it differently. In the Anglo-American tradition, the strongest nation isn't the one that has the most divisions; it's the country that doesn't need them.

"A nation of shopkeepers! " scoffed Napoleon at the English, but those shopkeepers were resourceful and determined enemies. They harrassed his trade and communications; they subsidized his continental enemies. Napoleon smashed army after army on the fields of battle; British gold and British diplomacy raised new coalitions and armies in the place of the ones he destroyed. In the end, an exhausted France gave up the struggle. Now we have adopted this Napoleonic thinking ourselves, but it doesn't seem to be doing more for us than it did for him. The United States scoffs at the unmilitary Germans and Japanese -- but we have grown so poor that we are openly asking our allies for subsidies; the policeman of the world is shaking down the shopkeepers on his beat.

It may be that we have no choice, but we must look long and hard at this role. It is safer, more remunerative, and more in keeping with our national tradition for us to be the world's banker than its policeman.

This is not to say that the United States should retreat within its borders. But the U.S. policy of global containment and its concomitant, massive global deployment of military might, were particular and abnormal responses to an unusual period in our history. They are dangerous and expensive policies; they have already helped pull us into war in the Persian Gulf. We need to think very carefully before making them the cornerstones of our strategy in the post-Cold War, post-gulf war, world.