"The idea of freedom," says outgoing White House national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, "has become the compelling idea of our time, the way it was 200 years ago only in a very small segment of the western world."

"Today," he believes, "tyranny is everywhere on the defensive. But whether that quest for freedom, with which it is good for the United States to identify itself, will express itself in a positive manner . . . or whether it will have the effect of generating global chaos and fragmentation is perhaps the unanswered question of the age."

"This is why a balanced American foreign policy, which combines a committment to principle with an appreciation of power, is so terribly important and very much needed," Brzezinsky said in a wide-ranging interview in his White House office.

Offering his view to a new admdinistration that soon will get its chance to deal with the upheaval and crises that seem everywhere, Brzezinski said, "We would make a big mistake if we skewed ourselves either in the direction of emphasizing only power and forgetting the importance of ideas, or if four years hence, in a reaction to that, we again move towards an essentially moralistic or even sentimental approach to the world like the Democratic Party did in 1972 -- under presidential candidate Sen. George McGovern -- when it rejected the continued relevance and need for effective American power in the world."

Brzezinski, the controversial and colorful Polish-born professor who has been perhaps the closest advisor to President Carter the past four years, has frequently been the lightning rod for criticism directed against the Carter White House, and a foreign policy which, fairly or not, is widely preceived to have failed in many respects.

Brzezinski acknowledges some mistakes. At times there were also conflicting goals, such as the effort to improve cooperation with the allies while trying to stop them from exporting nuclear equipment and the problem of applying White House human rights standards equally among friend and foe.

But on the larger questions, Brzezinski strongly defends the Carter record and reflects no lack of confidence in his views, in what he has learned over these four years, and in its potential value to his successor.

"We are leaving office," he said, "with the Middle East having the first peace treaty ever between Israel and an Arab state, with normalization of relations with China and with a major expansion in those relations a reality."

Ratification of the Panama Canal treaties, he says, has added "a new relationship of mutual dignity between ourselves and Latin America." The North Atlantic military alliance is left with "the most comprehensive modernization program ever undertaken" and a new "regional security framework" for the Persian Gulf, including access to bases and a U.S. military buildup, is under way.

"We are leaving office," he continued, " with a much better relationship with African countries than ever before and with genuine progress made toward majority rule, at least in one portion of southern Africa."

Also among the pluses, he says, is a "useful policy of differentiation" between some Soviet allies in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself, the negotiating of a signed but never ratified strategic arms limitation treaty with Moscow, and the "institutionalizing" of the seven-nation economic summit meetings among western industrialized nations and Japan.

Asked to list a handful of the continuing foreign policy problems that will require the immediate attention of the Reagan administration, Brzezinski said those problems range from Central America, which already is torn by revolt, to Central Europe, where all eyes are on the confrontation in Poland between labor unions and communist party authority.

In the Middle East, Brzezinski said, he see "opportunity" now to make some progress both in long-range security relationships with some of the moderate Arab states and on the Arab-Israeli peace front. In large part, he said, this is because the Iran-Iraq war has diverted the global spotlight from these problems.

While the war still contains the danger of disintegration within the Arab world, "at the same time, it has highlighted the need of the region to have some sort of a subtle and indrect security relationship with the United States." Brzezinski believes Carter's "timely and gutsy" decision to send U.S. radar planes to Saudi Arabia -- a decision, he points out, that was opposed by some of the government -- was the key event signaling this new relationship.

"At the same time, we have to be subtle and indrect," he said, keeping the region's cultural sensitivities in mind. "I think it would be a mistake for us or for the next administration to rush headlong into an effort to forge very formal security relationships, including permanent bases."

In Poland, "my estimate is that the will to compromise politically is present," Brzezinski says, "but the catastrophic economic situation may make the political compromise nonviable." Soviet intervention there certainly is not inevitable, he said, and it would be a "calamitous setback" for world stability if such intervention did take place.

Though he used diplomatic language, Brzezinski also made clear that his list of problems that will not go away with new U.S. leadership includes "potentially troublesome" conflicts with European allies about East-West relations, including "the need for a common posture on the Soviet aggression in Afghanistan."

The basic question is whether we and our allies share the same historic and strategic vision." His view, he said, is that what is happening in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf represents a common danger that threatend Europe as well and dictates common conclusions and actions.

Brzezinski says Carter would almost certainly have tried to pull allied leaders together to get an in-depth discussion of this problem if reelected and "I would not be surprised if President-elect Reagan did something similar after the inaugural," he added.

Though Brzezinski is widely characterized as a hawk on defense and a hard-liner toward Moscow, the Carter administration has met with considerable criticism that it was soft on defense and wishy-washy toward the Soviets.

But Brzezinski counters that "it is only within the last year -- after the upheaval in Iran, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. election campaign began -- that it has become fashionable to speak about enhancing defense capability. You'll remember that cutting the defense budget was very popular with some of our leading newspapers. Editorially, they were thundering for a shift in priorities.

"I think in the political contect in which we operated, taking into account the impact of the Vietnam war, the character of the Democratic Party, itself and the finite budget, that what was done by the president, Defense Secretary Harold Brown and others was quite impressive."

Brzezinski also rejects the criticism of those who claim Carter was engaging in a dangerous bluff when he committed the United States to defense of the Persian Gulf at a time when there was serious doubts this country had the forces to carry out that pledge.

How else, he asks, does a democracy assume an obligation to defend an area ahead of the actions actually needed to defend the region? "When we assumed the defense of Berlin in 1947-48, were we really in a position to defend Berlin?

"Similarly, are we supposed to publicly maintain the posture that we will not defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf until until some years hence? Isn't that an invitation for someone to come in and do something decisive in the meantime?"

What was needed and publicly stated, Brzezinski argues, was a national policy and obligation to defend the region which then also becomes a "warning to the other side, a deterrent warning, that if it engages in actions to exploit our weakness that they will become engaged with the United States more generally," meaning a possibly different field of battle.

"There's no other way of doing it," claims Brzezinski. "How could we do the things we have done in the past year -- including a start on a costly air, sea, and supply buildup -- if we didn't publicly assume that committment?"

As for dealing with Moscow, Brzezinski, under questioning, says the key lesson learned in four years is that "our willingness to cooperate with the Soviets must be carefully balanced with our willingness to compete assertively." The country, he says, must not get into a frame of mind -- which he once again linked to the McGovern era -- in which any firm response toward Moscow is labeled as "a cold war attitude, a charge which is frequently leveled against me." Conversely, he said, we must avoid viewing a willingness to cooperate as somehow appeasement.

Beyond that, he says, "It is very important with the Soviets to do two things: lay out your position very clearly -- including the broadest notions of our vital interests and areas of possible cooperation -- and stick to it."

Was this not done at the outset of the Carter administration, he is asked? "I think it was done, very much so, after Afghanistan. It started being done after Ethiopia," he answered. The invasion of Afghanistan came in December 1979, three years into the Carter administration. The Ethiopian situation developed late in 1977 when thousands of Cuban troops began moving into the country with Soviet assistance.

Whatever the record eventually will show about Brzezinski's flops or successes in the White House, his stay there has been dominated, at least in public, by the question of whether his role and personality were too influential in a job which is supposed to be that of a policy coordinator first and adviser second.

But when he is asked about the problems of self-interest within government generally, a different picture emerges.

"There is no doubt in my mind that there is an enormous institutional fragmentation in our handling of overall national security issues," he said. When broad policy decisions must go through such diverse bodies as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, aside from the departments of State and Defense and the CIA, it makes coherent policy difficult and reduction to some "common denominator"" most likely.

In his view, the president's constitutional prerogatives have also been too narrowly circumscribed in recent years, making a timely policy difficult to achieve.

As for the bureaucracy, "I think everyone feels that he is for the U.S. national interest, except how that interest is perceived and defined gets very much influenced by narrow institutional interests. The typical response of the Defense Department to a problem is to try and obtain an increase in the defense budget, while at the same time often being very reluctant to use force once that budget is increased. The institutional response of State is to rely on diplomacy and to be rather skeptical of the use of power even for demonstration purposes," he says.

"That is why, ultimately, the president does need some sort of a coordinating framework or organ within which a broader vision is generated. This is one reason why, over the years, a presidential office for national security affairs emerged.

"It isn't because of the personal talents or peculiarities of individuals who have held that position," says the man who helped make a hard-to-pronounce name into a household word. Rather, Zbigniew Brzezinski says, the office emerged because of "the logic of America's engagement in the world and the president's need for a perspective that integates the different institutional divisions."