The setting was a CBS television interview. On camera, measuring her words and speaking in level tones, was Georgetown University political scientist Jeane Kirkpatrick:

"If we are confronted with the choice between offering assistance to a moderately repressive autocratic government which is also friendly to the United States, and permitting it to be overrun by a Cuban-trained, Cuban-armed, Cuban-sponsored insurgency, we would assist the moderate autocracy."

Nothing exceptional about that conclusion, most Americans would probably agree, given the way the proposition was put. Note the careful qualifying use of the word "moderate" and the emphasis on extensive and explicit Cuban involvement.

But the response from Assistant Secretary of State Patricia M. Derian, for four years the Carter administration's most devout advocate of "human rights," was, well, explosive:

"What the hell is 'moderately repressive' -- that you only torture half of the people, that you only do summary executions now and then? I don't even know what 'moderately repressive' is. The idea that we somehow must stand closer to dictators -- people who are cruel to their people -- is absurd."

It was an arresting and richly revealing exchange -- arresting in its emotional intensity and revealing in what it suggests about a profound change in American foreign policy. It defines in its simplest form a basic difference in the way the Reagan administration can be expected to deal with the infinitely diverse, indirect struggles for influence it will soon be inheriting in the so-called Third World -- in Central America, in Asia, in Africa, in and around the Persian Gulf.

Much has been made of the new, harder-nosed line the president-elect proposes to take in direct confrontation with the Soviets -- the redressing of the strategic nuclear balance, the urgent buildup of American armed forces, the tougher-minded (presumably) terms on arms control. But these are likely to be differences largely of degree, and almost certainly not as sudden or substantial as they have sometimes been made out to be.

What Kirkpatrick and Derian were arguing about, by contrast, involves a fundamental difference in philosophy. And what gives their exchange particular significance is that Kirkpatrick is in an almost unique position to elaborate on this critical aspect of the foreign policy of the incoming Reagan administration.

While she is now one of the few Democrats on Reagan's blue-ribbon interim foreign policy advisory board, a year ago she had not even met the president-elect. She had, however, written an article in Commentary magazine entitled "Dictatorships and Double Standards," a scholarly and withering indictment of the "failure of the Carter administration's foreign policy."

Reciting the expansion and/or consolidation of Soviet influence in Africa, Afghanistan and the Caribbean, she asserts as her premise that "the United States has never tried so hard and failed so utterly to make and keep friends in the Third World." A friend called it to Reagan's attention, thinking he might at the very least appreciate the general drift.

He did more than that. As Kirkpatrick tells it, he wrote her a long, detailed and "very flattering" letter, suggesting a meeting to discuss it further. He also passed it along approvingly to close aides Richard Allen and William Casey.

It is, as Kirkpatrick puts it, "a difficult article -- not the sort of thing I would expect a politician to read." Its full argument, accordingly, is impossible to abbreviate. But its general theme, applicable to Nicaragua, El Salvador, and perhaps even the Philippines, is that it is dangerous to push internal reforms upon friendly governments, and even more so to look for "moderates" in left-wing, Marxist-oriented revolutionary movements.

One paragraph will give the gist and flavor:

"Only intellectual fashion and the tyranny of right-left thinking prevent intelligent men of good will from perceiving the facts that traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies, that they are more susceptible of liberalization, and that they are more compatible with U.S. interests."

In short, if you believe that what presidents-elect read with thoroughgoing approval is at least as revealing as what they may say, Kirkpatrick's "Dictatorships and Double Standards" is perhaps the most solid available evidence that the Reagan administration, while not necessarily indifferent to "human rights," will stand the Carter administration's "human rights" policy on its head.