This being the time of year for examining where we are going, one of the great practitioners of postwar American foreign policy has done just that in the winter issue of Foreign Affairs, where he made a large splash almost 40 years ago under a pseudonym, Mr. X.

His real name is George Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union and State Department planner in the creative postwar years that gave us the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and the theory of "containment" in the anonymous "X" article. (Kennan was then a State Department policy maker who was not supposed to be talking policy out loud.)

But the anonymity quickly crumbled, and "containment" was considerably transfigured over time into a moral crusade against communism. Kennan has steadfastly rejected this revisionism, and records now available of his policy contributions at the time bear him out.

But no matter. He returns to the subject, "Morality and Foreign Policy," at the age of 81 with every right to rethink whatever he did (or did not) set forth as a proper course of U.S. foreign policy 40 years ago in a far different world.

And once again, he is being misconstrued -- or at least oversimplified. He is not asking us, as some have suggested, to choose between the "national interest" and morality; still less is he advocating amorality in the conduct of our relations with the rest of the world. He is arguing that much of what we now do in the name of morality is less moral, on balance, than the alternatives he recommends, when you take into account the challenges we confront and the limited resources at hand to deal with them.

In 12 pages, you cannot expect cases in point. He is offering a stimulant, not a blueprint; he is telling us not what to think about this or that international issue, but how to think in a general way about our international priorities.

Kennan's argument begins with a natural American compulsion to invest foreign policy with a heavy moral content; to intervene in near or distant parts of the world in the spirit of our own values; to pass judgment on the political practices of others by measuring them against our own. And we do all this in a state of confusion between morality and simple self-interest and by methods (covert operations and an absence of humanitarian concern) that would not pass the morality tests that are supposed to govern the way we conduct our internal affairs.

So we are not even morally consistent. And that is not the worst of it. In pursuit of overly ambitious foreign-policy purposes, in the name of morality, we are going broke. "Fantastically high" budget deficits and adverse trade balances -- compounded by military expenditures "so extensively out of reach of political control" as to constitute a "national addiction" -- have us in such a condition of disorder that we are not in a position to make effective use of our resources on the international scene: "They are . . . largely out of (our) control," he argues.

"A first step along the path of morality," Kennan says, would be "the frank recognition of the immense gap between what we dream of doing and what we really have to offer, and a resolve . . . to establish a better relationship between our undertakings and our real capabilities."

This "imperative," Kennan insists, must be measured against two "unprecedented and supreme dangers." One is the danger not just of nuclear war but of any major war -- "an exercise which modern technology has now made suicidal all around." The second danger he sees is the "devastating effect of modern industrialization and overpopulation on the world's natural environment."

Kennan doesn't quite say it, but the implication is clear enough. He is recommending a U.S. policy less preoccupied with ideology, political forms abroad, and marginal and distant threats to our security. He is cautioning against commitments to the support of "freedom fighters" everywhere. He is calling into question our capacity to right every political wrong, the more so since we are so indiscriminate about the wrongs we seek to right.

What he is saying is that we could destroy our own society in the process of imposing its values on others. The policy he espouses would "seek the possibilities for service to morality principally in our own behavior, not in our judgment of others."

One yearns for some how-to-do-its, specifically applied to Afghanistan, Central America, the MX missile, military aid. But that, in a sense, is Kennan's singular contribution to those of a mind to do a little turn-of-the-year rethinking of our current course in foreign policy. Kennan's general rules of engagement leave us free to do what he feels Americans by nature are disinclined to do: "overcome their tendency toward generalization, and . . . look at matters on their merits, case by case."

Where measures taken by foreign governments "affect adversely American interests rather than just American moral sensibilities, protests and retaliation are obviously in order," Kennan concludes. "But then they should be carried forward frankly for what they are, and not allowed to masquerade under the mantle of moral principle."