Next week the Senate will most likely vote to adopt a Senate-House conference committee report on legislation aimed at influencing the South African government to end its system of apartheid.

The House passed the conference report 380 to 48, and the Senate earlier approved virtually the same legislation, 80 to 12.

The debate over Congress' South Africa bill has raged in the press during the languid weeks of August. While Congress and much of America have been vacationing, the scenes of escalating violence in South Africa have dominated the nightly news.

Alleged differences between Congress and the president over South Africa have been portrayed in journalistic shorthand as sanctions versus no sanctions. The debate is seen not so much in policy terms as in political terms -- as a potential repudiation of the president's policies of constructive engagement.

I appreciate the apparent need to simplify this foreign policy debate into easily reportable alternatives, but to do so misses the point.

The Senate-House conference report is a carefully crafted bill developed by a bipartisan consensus of both houses of Congress that has not been displayed since Vietnam. The legislation is designed to encourage positive reform in South Africa. It attempts to use America's limited leverage in South Africa to bring about a more democratic and less racist system of government.

This has been my goal since I first became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee late last year. I urged the president last December to speak out more forcefully against apartheid and to promote his policies in more positive terms. He did so, but the debate in Congress and the press was dominated by those who argued that the United States should show its outrage toward South Africa by disinvesting.

I strongly disagree with this approach. While complete economic withdrawal from South Africa may help satisfy moral outrage, it is essentially an isolationist policy that removes America from the vital forces of world history.

South Africa is an important strategically. In geopolitical terms, it plays a key role in American security interests. It is also an economic engine that can contribute to the democratic growth and stability of the emerging black African countries.

I support the so-called "Reagan Doctrine," which attempts to assist democratic resistance forces in countries controlled or threatened by Soviet totalitarianism. We are now engaged in efforts to support democratic reform movements in Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Cambodia. We should also use our influence to strengthen democracy in countries such as South Africa. The demand for political reform is so great in South Africa that if we do not support it in positive terms, the Soviets will surely manipulate it for their own totalitarian gains. This is our challenge in South Africa.

I have heard arguments of some of my colleagues that South Africa's faults are less odious than the Soviet Union's, yet we direct no sanctions against Moscow. In fact we have erected a host of economic and political sanctions over many years to express our outrage at Soviet violations of human rights. We do not expect to see much constructive change very soon.

But in South Africa, we must have optimism that a friendly government that values our association will move now to enter negotiations with representative black leaders on formulas of power sharing, and thus a peaceful evolutionary path to a strengthened democracy for all South Africans.

The Senate-House conference report is not a disinvestment bill. It is not just a sanctions bill. It is a package of carrots and sticks that hit the South African government, not the people, with economic sanctions and the threat of more if substantial reforms are not made. It also establishes several American grant and scholarship programs to help black South Africans. But most importantly it sends a clear message to the democratic forces in South Africa, white and black, that the United States supports their cause.

The challenge facing the United States during the rest of this century is whether we can use our influence not only to defend democracy in the world but also promote it actively. We cannot and should not dictate to other nations, but it is in our best interests strategically, economically and idealistically to be engaged actively in the world to foster democracy with friends and foes alike.