Returning to Washington, Congress faces a critical choice between funding America's overseas leadership and turning its back on the world. This summer the Senate and House voted to slash President Clinton's fiscal year 2000 budget request for international affairs by roughly 12 percent -- or more than $2.4 billion. The result, if enacted, would pose a clear and present danger to American interests, because diplomacy is our country's first line of defense.

Although our economy is strong and our military power unmatched, serious threats to the security of our citizens remain. These include international terrorists who have targeted Americans, the possibility of conflict in key regions, the risk of renewed financial crisis, drug trafficking and the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles that can travel vast distances to deliver them.

These and other threats directly affect the lives of Americans. That is why traditional notions of "foreign aid" have become virtually obsolete. When we provide resources to inspect nuclear facilities in North Korea, or help South American farmers find alternatives to growing coca or train foreign police in counterterrorism techniques, we are aiding America. The same principle applies when we help former adversaries such as Russia dispose of nuclear materials safely, or assist those in troubled regions such as the Middle East, Northern Ireland and the Balkans to achieve peace.

A central lesson of this century is that we cannot ensure American security by going it alone or relying solely on military might. Security results from the marriage of diplomacy to power. That means strong international engagement supported by adequate resources.

We must work with allies and friends to defuse crises, repel dangers, promote more open economic and political systems and strengthen the rule of law. These are the core goals our foreign policy resources help us secure.

Americans also benefit from what I would call the bread-and-butter aspects of our diplomacy, such as trade agreements, embassies, consular services and visa offices. We benefit as well from programs that address urgent humanitarian needs such as child survival, clearing land mines, caring for refugees and slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Unfortunately, in this decade, our resources have not kept pace with our responsibilities. While our diplomatic workload has risen, personnel levels have gone down and our funding -- in real terms -- has declined. Today we allocate less than one-tenth of the portion of our wealth that we did a generation ago to support democracy and growth overseas. In this respect, we rank dead last among industrialized nations. Meanwhile, we are first among debtors to the United Nations and other international organizations.

After years of nicks and cuts, we now face massive reductions that would hobble our ability to respond to an ever-changing world, while slashing programs of proven value to American interests. Any legislator who believes the United States should do more to prevent wars, counter terror, fight crime or preserve a healthy global economy should agree: We cannot make progress toward these goals if we drain the resources we devote to them.

Although many Americans are under the impression it is far more, the amount we allocate for the full range of international programs is equal to only about one penny for every dollar the federal government spends. These expenditures are effective in part because American dollars leverage the contributions of others. For example, we expect allies and friends to join us in aiding recovery in Southeast Europe, preserving stability on the Korean peninsula and addressing other urgent problems. But it is far easier to persuade others to do their part when we are clearly doing ours.

Moreover, as last year's Africa bombings illustrated, the men and women who work in our embassies abroad are on the front lines every day on every continent. They deserve the honor and support of the American people. And they deserve the protection that would be provided by full funding for the multi-year security construction program the administration has proposed.

The decisions that congressional appropriators must make are complex. But our economy is strong and the investments we have recommended affordable. The president's budget requests would finance foreign policy without detracting from our defense and domestic needs, while still yielding a surplus.

The best leaders of both parties in Congress understand that American diplomacy belongs on the short list of budget priorities. It has been a decade since the Berlin Wall fell. Some may feel that in the absence of a superpower rival, the United States can now get by on the cheap. They are wrong: The world's greatest democracy needs resources to lead.

The debate over foreign policy funding is not new in America. It has been joined repeatedly from the time the Continental Congress sent Ben Franklin to Paris, to the proposals for Lend Lease and the Marshall Plan that bracketed World War II, to the Central European democracy and Nunn-Lugar programs a few years ago. In each case, history's verdict has gone decisively to those who argued that America must meet its responsibilities. We now face our own test and in the months ahead can earn the favorable judgment of those who will one day chronicle our age.

The writer is secretary of state.