MUCH BACKSTAGE work has been done, and much outreach, and expectations are being expressed that perhaps today the Senate will authorize a good $1 billion sum to pay American dues and assessments that are owed at the United Nations. The further hope is that the House will then permit the Senate result to prevail. This outcome will no doubt be hailed in different quarters as a political triumph, though in fact it is no more than the cutting of formidable losses that should never have had to be incurred in the first place.

That the battle had to be fought at all sends a plaintive signal of the unreadiness or at least the continuing reluctance of the United States to engage responsibly in international affairs. As the single country with the most far-reaching international interests and obligations, it stands to reason that the United States would be an active leader in organizations such as the United Nations that augment individual nations' national reach. No country uses the United Nations more to define and coordinate its global foreign policy.

Yet many Americans still mistakenly regard the world body as a source of restrictions on American initiative, even on American sovereignty, rather than as a source of openings and companions for the long march of world affairs. You would think that the world's lone superpower could rise above pettiness and transient frustrations in these matters. You would be disappointed much of the time.

The worst of it was that an essentially domestic religious and social issue -- pro-life and pro-choice -- was allowed to take dominance over considerations of foreign policy. Here the role of the heavy was played by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.). Evidently certain that his position could not be sustained on its merits, he attached it to an essential authorization bill.

Other nations must wonder in befuddlement how Americans would so casually toy with the national interest and allow American influence to be drained from a body that the United States founded and that it has made a central arena and lever of its international policy for decades. Is it finally over, at least for a year?