Much has been said lately about the sensible way George Shultz has gone about consolidating his control of the State Department in the interests of more coherence in his conduct of foreign policy. And rightly so. His approach to the replacement of Jeane Kirkpatrick as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations is a perfect case in point. First, Shultz settled on the right man, in retired Gen. Vernon Walters, for the right reasons. And then he did his damndest to put an end to a troublemaking tradition, dating back more than 30 years, of embellishing the job with the epaulets of Cabinet rank.

At this point, ''Shultz ran into a buzz saw,'' says an official in a position to know. Understandably, Walters did not want to be the first U.S. representative since Dwight Eisenhower appointed Henry Cabot Lodge to be shorn of Cabinet membership, with all its implications of being the president's man with special access to the Oval Office. So the epaulets of Cabinet status will be retained.

But Walters, among many other things, is a good soldier. His wide experience ideally suits him for the United Nations. He is not, however, known for policy-making pretensions or intellectual bent. ''He is more of an attendant lord who will do what he is told,'' as one associate puts it. So, by his appointment, Shultz has accomplished his mission, which was, in the words of one official, ''to reestablish the subordination of the U.S. mission at the United Nations to the Department of state -- to make it just another place where we do diplomatic business.''

To appreciate the good sense in this reordering you have only to note the parting thoughts of the most recent casualty of what has become the Heartbreak Hill of American diplomacy. Kirkpatrick was plainly frustrated by her lack of influence in the policy-making process. She had been ''misunderstood,'' and there had been a ''very large distortion'' of her views. Some people in the administration had accused her of ''not being a team player.'' She was displeased about a lot of aspects of the administration's foreign policy. She told The New York Times that she found ''inside struggles; for power . . . oppressive and offensive'' -- as if they were not the price paid by those who wished to influence policy.

But Kirkpatrick is hardly the first of the walking wounded in that job. According to their own accounts, Adlai Stevenson, Arthur Goldberg, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles Yost all discovered the hard way that conducting America's business at the United Nations in New York while simultaneously laying claim to the power and prestige of Cabinet status in Washington is an invitation to frustration born of false expectations.

You could argue that this was not the case in 1953, when Lodge was brought into the Cabinet. Eisenhower, the political novice, valued his advice across the board, and Lodge gave it freely in Cabinet meetings. And the United Nations was a far more effective instrument of U.S. policy in those days.

With the precedent established by Lodge, Kennedy could do no less for Adlai stevenson. And Lyndon Johnson could do no less for Arthur Goldberg, after coaxing him out of a lifetime job as a Supreme Court justice to be ''my man for peace'' at the United Nations. And so it became a habit. But it also became no less an anomaly for the American envoy to an international organization to share Cabinet rank -- and theoretically equal access to the president -- with the secretary of state, who, by an logical chain of command, is his boss.