There now, that didn't hurt did it? It was an easier flight to New York than to a United Nations part-time headquarters in Moscow. There were no rude noises from an audience representing 158 nations while Ronald Reagan was beating the Soviets over the head and shoulders for their "brutality" and indifference to the truth, whacking the Third World upside the head for "pseudo-nonalignment," and trumpeting new, more flexible arms-control proposals. It was, in short, a perfect example of the opportunity the United Nations offers as a sounding board, a safety valve, a forum for debate -- however rancid -- and an instrument for peacekeeping whenever there is a political will to use it.

So what was the point of all the wailing and rending of garments last week, the snide invitations to the United Nations to pick up its marbles and go home, the bleating about the rude behavior of some of its members? How could a flap over the landing rights of Soviet Foreign Minister Andre Gromyko grow into a flaky debate about the value to U.S. interests of American participation in the United Nations and the horror of having its headquarters on American soil?

The temptation is to throw up one's hands at the spectacle of yet another narrowly focused debate over the utility and/or futility of U.S. membership in a world organization whose outmoded workings give disproportionate weight to a membership swollen by the addition over its 38 years of almost 100 relatively weightless, often unruly new nations. But there is more to the recent uproar over the United Nations than Sen. Symms (R.-Idaho) saying that "the American taxpayers are sick and tired of playing hosts to our enemies and critics abroad." If the transformation of the United Nations -- and the loss of dominance that the United States and the West once had in its councils -- can rightly be seen as no more than a rough reflection of transformations in the real world; then the current debate over the United Nations goes to the heart of a historic conflict over U.S. foreign policy.

"The manner in which a state practices foreign policy is greatly affected by national peculiarities," writes Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in a scholarly and insightful analysis of "Foreign Policy and the American Character" in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. "No paradox is more persistent than the historic tension in the American soul between an addiction to experiment and a susceptibility to ideology."

Tracing the "two strains [that] have competed for the control of American foreign policy" over the years, Schlesinger concludes that in the end a successful American president has to appeal to "both reality and ideology." Most postwar presidents, he believes, have been more or less successful in "marrying national interest to idealistic hope." The Reagan administration, he contends, "represents a mighty comeback of the messianic approach to foreign policy."

But even Democrat Schlesinger is willing to concede an administration readiness, having marched up the ideological hill, to march down again. As examples of "the modification of ideology by interest," he cites the administration's reversal of the European gas pipeline sanctions, the Reagan Middle East peace initiative last year, and the evolution in Reagan's China policy.

To all of which you could add -- by way of putting in perspective all that we have been hearing, both silly and serious, from the administration and Congress about the U.N. in recent days -- the president's slap-happy suggestion last week that the United Nations might profit by moving to Moscow for six months of the year and his use this week of the General Assembly podium for a serious exposition of his world view.