I have done my share of complaining about "Captive Nations Week," the 23-year emigre campaign to promote the liberation of the Soviet Unioin's foreign conquests and its constituent nationality groups, like the Ukrainians. I still think it's unacceptably risky and provocative, if by liberation is mean a much more forward role than the deliberate but measured response that the United States has made to home-grown national strivings in Yugoslavia, Romania and, now, Poland.

All the same, "Captive Nations" no longer seems such an offense against sound policy as it used to. For one thing, the detente that we good liberal souls once feared would be jeopardized by too rigorous a dose of ethnic manipulation shriveled anyway, and not through any particular exertion by Lev Dobriansky, the single-minded Ukrainian-American who is head of the operation.

For a second thing, it has become harder over the years, as place after place and group after group no one has ever heard of demand sovereignty, to declare categorically that large and familiar places and peoples have no theoretical right to independent nationhood because they happen to lie within close reach of the Soviet army. I happen to think there has been a near-promiscuous granting of sovereign claims. In any event, the idea of ethnic self-determination suffuses the international air.

This is, as you know, Captive Nations Week. At a lunch in the House, Rep. Edward J. Derwinski (R-Ill.) presided, a priest indicted "godless communism," and the old man who set up a provisional Ukrainian government for a few days in 1941 -- between the retreating Soviets and the advancing Germans, who incarcerated him -- predicted that the "subjugated nations" of the Soviet empire will destroy it from within. At my table, an intense young man, saying Moscow spends $3 billion a year on "disinformation" in this country, protested the use of Soviet-supplied evidence against a Cleveland war-crimes defendant whose citizenship has just been revoked.

Kind words could be heard for Ronald Reagan's captive nations proclamation, through Leve Dobriansky expressed some regret that the president had not yet extended his use of the term "Soviet empire" to the Soviet Union itself. At the head table sat the White House liaison to ethnics, Jack Burgess, a former student of Dobriansky's. A daughter, Paula Dobriansky, works on Soviet and East European affairs in the National Security Council.

Well, I said to myself, some of these people are in it for the nostalgia, and some might not think war too big a price to pay to achieve their national goals, but it is hard to look them in the eye and say that they cannot dream their dreams and work through the normal political process to make their mark on national policy. That much is owed them.

So much for lunch. I turned to a new Foreign Affairs magazine article on "Ethnic Groups and Foreign Policy" by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.). I am often on Mathias' wavelength, but the tone of this piece was unsettling.

By ethnic groups, you see, Mathias does not mean the early-arriving Anglo-Saxons, who number less than a third of the population and whose great influence was chiefly responsible for Americans entry into two European wars in this century in order to rescue their ancestral communities. He means the alter-arriving Irish, Jews, Greeks and East Europeans -- and blacks and Hispanics? -- whose various ancestral communities are still in one or another for of distress. By its own rosiest estimate, the Captive Nations constituency is at best only a second- or third-rank force in American society, and the core group has had scant success, when you think about it, in moving American foreign policy toward its more extreme ends.

Mathias writes that "the problems of the modern would and their solution have broken past the boundaries of ethnic group, race and nation." That is a very Anglo-Saxon observation, one that goes down a lot easier when your group's, your race's or your nation's priorities are already at the top of the relevant agenda. The matter of which elements in our pluralistic society get their aspirations and their anxieties defined as national and which as sub-national -- in this instance, ethnic -- is what most of our political debate is about.