Sitting before Ferdinand Marcos in his ornate office the other day as he gave his interview to a group of us from Newsweek and The Washington Post, I was struck by what an inappropriate object of admiration and support he is for the dedicated anticommunist American right. Here is a man who has truly blown it so far as the stability and security of his country are concerned. His failure raises in the most interesting way questions about the widely accepted premise that strongman government, while exacting a price in democratic freedoms, may be necessary to protect Third World countries from the designs of predatory communism. It also raises the question of what people mean when they speak of Marcos as America's "friend." He may be ostensibly friendly to our larger purposes in this world, but God knows he has set them back in a spectacular way in the Philippines.

I got to thinking about this as Marcos, asked about the strength of the communist insurgency that is growing in his country, pretty much dismissed it out of hand, appearing more casual about the threat than his opponent, Corazon Aquino, does -- and Mrs. Aquino herself is pretty complacent on the subject. In fact, Marcos must minimize the danger in order to rebut the charges, which are true, that the insurgency is prospering largely as a result of his government's incompetence at handling it either militarily or by political means.

The military is only one of the institutions that have been weakened by the Marcos governing style. Marcos & Co. have plundered their own country so that, far from being a showcase of the social and economic benefits that can flow from close association with the United States, the Philippines has become a metaphor for economic and social degradation. And far from demonstrating that the application of strongman power can make things work, the Marcos government has managed to use power in about as self-destructive a way as anyone has yet thought of. The murder of Benigno Aquino is exhibit A. I'm not saying Marcos was in on the murder. I don't know. But whoever got rid of his No. 1 antagonist exerted power to the opposite effect of what must have been intended. Instead of intimidating the survivors, it galvanized them and instead of cowing Aquino's widow, it liberated her from personal fear, persuaded her she had nothing more to lose and created a kind of invulnerable fatalism that led her into this improbable and risk-laden campaign. Whether or not she does well in the election, she has already done Marcos incalculable and lasting political harm, harm that will dog him into his next term if he should win one.

Marcos asks an audience heavy with businessmen if they would even contemplate naming Mrs. Aquino president of their companies. The barb is, I think, well placed. Corazon Aquino's training for this job is virtually nil, and her response to his making a big deal of it -- that she has no experience in cheating, stealing and murder, if that is what he means -- doesn't dispose of the point. Yet she has attracted astonishing crowds and some astonishing support from the business community and from within the military as well as from more predictable quarters. To some extent this is a gauge of despair with Marcos, and a notion shared by some in the Reagan administration. But even though in the final weeks of the campaign some people began to say she might actually win, she continues to seem less an alternative president or actual contender for the office than a kind of one-woman Greek chorus -- an insistent, ever-present voice articulating all the outrage and disappointment felt by Filipinos who until now didn't feel they could articulate it themselves.

Cory Aquino is a much frailer woman than you might judge from her photographs, oddly merry and light and even ingenuous in her way, yet relentless in her pursuit of Marcos. Her motorcade, forever bogging down in the Manila traffic, is regularly set upon by clamorous well-wishers, banging on the side of the Toyota minibus in which she rides, thrusting their hands through its open windows, making the "L" hand sign that is the symbol of her campaign. It is a security man's nightmare. Her speeches savage Marcos, and he has clearly felt the sting. He spends much of his time defensively addressing her complaints, professing himself something other than an authoritarian, answering back, denying. She has gained control of the debate. He keeps saying he is not a dictator, not a failure, not a crook. As the Toyota minibus winds past some government buildings we see workers in them and some military people give the "L" sign to Mrs. Aquino. Self-evidently something has broken loose in the Philippines that is out of Marcos' control. It is testimony to his own disastrous tenure that some people very much disposed to think otherwise have said that despite the vast dangers attending the election of this untutored candidate, they think that with her there would at least be a chance of halting the national disintegration. Others who can't go this far are nonetheless energetically addressing the transition from Marcos to some other legatee after the election. However it turns out, he is finished.

Maybe there is some truth -- however reluctantly arrived at -- in Marcos' claim that he is not much of a strongman. You don't see anything like the Philippines' erupting political volcano being tolerated in South Korea. There is said to be widespread support in the country for the opposition leaders, yet opposition figures must be extremely discreet and careful in their pronouncements and acts, and they are continuously monitored by government cops. Our few conversations with such people in South Korea were in fact less notable for anything flamboyant any of them said -- they actually seemed conservative and mild -- than for the cohort of klutzy government security agents who were on their tail at all times, lurking in hallways, forever trying to get in on the proceedings. The scene doesn't have the Wild West open shoot-out quality of Marcos' repression, but it seems pretty clear that you don't mess around with Chun Doo Hwan.

Yet he, too, is moving by slow stages to some form of at least modestly democratic government and, unlike Marcos, he can set out the strongman's claims and justifications with a straight face. The Koreans have done well. Korea is the economic and social showcase we are always talking about. The association with this country has availed Koreans many advantages, and to their north lies an object lesson in the comparative blessings of American and Soviet-Chinese patronage. To the north also lies a threat that even the most ferocious critics of Chun Doo Hwan's authoritarian ways would not deny. The South Koreans are literally under the gun, implacably opposed by a genuinely fanatic and murderous government whose last great adventure was to kill 17 top-level South Korean officials in an act of terrorism in Rangoon.

So President Chun Doo Hwan can point to both domestic accomplishments and external threats by way of rationalizing the nature of his rule. Yet what is happening in South Korea suggests that these rationales are overtaken and outgrown precisely as a strongman government succeeds in meeting the challenges for which it invokes them. A society as strong, prosperous and self-confident as the South Korean one has become cannot and will not forever live with a government that does not reflect its own strengths and sophistication. The question now in that country is one of schedule and pace and this, in turn, will dictate the way in which a liberated society will govern itself and connect with the outside world. Will it evolve or blow up? Here the American connection becomes especially important. We can do a lot to influence the transition to a more open form of government in South Korea and its ultimate character.

The boondoggling senator out for a taxpayer-financed journey to Geishaland has been displaced as the archetypal American in this part of the world. So has the loudmouthed, loud-necktied tourist. The new American presence (or "intervention," depending on the speaker's frame of mind) has other representatives. They are: the congressional kibitzer/scold, the public-relations adviser and the American journalist. In Japan a fairly steady stream of American legislators has arrived for the purpose of pounding the table and trying to get the Japanese to remove the informal trade barriers that keep American products from reaching their markets and to take other steps that would help diminish the $50 billion trade deficit. In the Philippines we are pressuring and poll-watching. In South Korea we are trying to observe human-rights progress and bring it about.

All this gets regularly denounced by those who are its targets, largely on grounds of interference in their countries' internal affairs, cultural imperialism and the rest. And it is surely the case that, especially in the Philippines, the size of the American election- watching force -- government, press and other -- has taken on the character of a political convention and is actually rather embarrassing. Yet I note that those Filipino, Korean and Japanese parties who profess to be most aggrieved by the alien nature of our interventions, protesting that they and their countrymen will continue to do things in their own immemorial national way, have retained American public-relations firms and press agents and are giving at least as good as they get on the 6 o'clock news.

The point here is an important one. Again and again on this trip we have heard it said, generally in extenuation of some controversial practice, that the people of Japan or Korea or the Philippines could not be expected to depart from their deeply engrained cultural habits just to please the Americans. And this of course goes to our own national feeling of guilt, our own uncertainties and insecurities and sense that we are always clumsily trampling on customs and principles different from our own. To be sure, there is something in this, and sometimes the intervention, though unavoidable, is painful. For the sake of righting a trade imbalance, for instance, we are asking the Japanese to renounce habits of frugality and methods of organizing their economy -- personal and public -- that are fundamental, a prospect that is about as enticing to them as the prospect of Hong Kong snake soup is to me. And in some measure we do occasionally seem to be pressing them toward values and norms that just aren't exportable and that aren't necessarily better than what they would replce anyway.

But there is also a bit of a dodge in the too quickly offered complaint about cultural imperialism from people who have come so far so eagerly into the modern international, industrializing, global-village age. And there is condescension in our own too-easy acceptance of the theory of unbridgeable cultural distinctions between us and friends in Asia. Any American of my generation coming here for the first time brings a lot of preconception, myth and romance along, not to mention guilt and anxiety. Variously we have been benefactors in Asia and victims and scourges over the years. Much seems to us exotic. We are proprietary about Asians and at the same time slightly intimidated by them. We laugh at the exuberant vulgarity of some of the Filipino style, its neo-pinball-machine decor and retreat in awkwardness from the fastidious remoteness of the too-polite Japanese.

And yet in a brief trip through four countries -- I write from Singapore -- it has seemed to me that again and again I have encountered wholly familiar individuals whose condition puts me strongly in mind of their counterparts elsewhere. These are not ethnic or racial types but universal types:

*The political priest, wily or cautious, substituting himself for a political opposition in countries from South America to Eastern Europe to Korea and the Philippines where an open opposition has not been tolerated or is still in peril.

*The supersophisticated, cynical, smooth cabinet member who can talk a good American game, who can justify the toughest authoritarian actions, yet who wants always to make peace with the other side . . . just in case.

*The noble citizen who undertakes that investigative-commission job -- Ernesto Sabato in Argentina, Corazon Agrava in the Philippines, others elsewhere -- which involves great personal risk and stubbornly fighting many government-imposed obstacles to get at the truth about government brutalities.

The night before we were to witness the death of the seven astronauts, our group looked at some old TV film of the last moments of Ninoy Aquino's life: film of him on the plane talking happily of the purpose of his bold return to the Philippines, of the dangers, of his pleasure in being home. Then we saw the soldiers board the plane, saw Aquino hustled roughly away and heard the fatal shot. The excruciating dramatic irony of those last cheerful moments was replicated the next morning in the jaunty walk of the doomed Americans. I thought: this is a universal human agony, the crushed bravery and hope, the shared horror of watching it happen. I think we need to be less shy -- or is it arrogant? -- about accepting that certain values and emotions we prize are shared and felt around the world. I think the distance to Asia is shorter than we think.