Country by country, post by post and mission by mission, the number of U.S. diplomats stationed abroad to track political affairs, police trade agreements and help American travelers is shrinking fast.

Relentless budget pressure that began in the mid-1980s accelerated with the Clinton administration's deficit-reduction plan, forcing the closing of consulates, aid missions, libraries, cultural centers and even a few entire embassies, from Italy to Indonesia, from Antigua to Thailand.

Since 1993 the State Department has cut more than 2,000 employees and shuttered consulates in 26 foreign cities. The Agency for International Development (AID), which runs foreign aid programs, has been hit especially hard by the Republican-controlled Congress and has closed 23 missions overseas.

While a few new posts have opened -- in Vietnam, Macedonia and a handful of other countries where the United States has recently established diplomatic relations -- the Stars and Stripes is flying today over far fewer sites abroad than it did during the Cold War.

The United States still maintains a far-flung international apparatus. At last count the State Department had embassies in 157 countries, consulates in 81 foreign cities and a dozen or so special missions. But more assignments are being made to regions instead of countries, and with fewer people. Further budget cuts next year would force additional closings, according to the State Department.

In the short run, the cutbacks appear likely to have little direct impact on most Americans. Travelers who get sick or lose their passports may have to travel farther or wait longer to get help. Business executives may find fewer Foreign Service officers available to help them make contacts or cut red tape.

In this era of instant communications, few voices have risen to argue that it was essential to keep U.S. consulates open in peaceful spots such as Zurich or Brisbane, Australia. And State Department officials acknowledge that some monitoring traditionally done in huge embassies such as those in Bangkok or London could be done just as well in Washington.

Many Republicans in Congress think the administration should go further in reducing spending abroad. "We want to maintain the United States presence around the world, but we have to remember there is a limit to the taxpayers' ability to foot the bill," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) told Secretary of State Warren Christopher at a recent congressional hearing.

There is another side to the debate, however. Critics of the retrenchment say that over time it is bound to have a strongly negative impact on this country's ability to protect its citizens, promote U.S. interests and influence events.

Those observers include foreign policy specialists, experienced diplomats, secretaries of state from both parties and a wide variety of public interest, human rights and volunteer organizations. They fear that an erosion of Foreign Service training and field experience, combined with the loss of listening posts and a cutback in cultural exchanges, inevitably will diminish the contacts, experience and savvy that underlie successful diplomacy.

When the United States no longer has a diplomatic post in, say, Poznan, Poland, or Lumumbashi, Zaire, these observers argue, the United States loses the early contacts with a rising young Polish politician or Zairian army officer who may be running the country some day.

To demonstrate that such concerns are not just special pleading by the foreign policy establishment, more than 100 businesses, trade associations, law firms and volunteer groups have organized a "Campaign to Preserve U.S. Global Leadership." It aims to block further "potentially excessive cuts in the international affairs budget that will undermine America's global leadership and security."

Among the members are the Arnold & Porter law firm, the Aerospace Industries Association, the American Association of Museums, United Technologies Inc., Zero Population Growth and the National Council of Negro Women. The Arab American Institute and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are both members.

Christopher and his best-known predecessor, Henry A. Kissinger, have repeatedly sounded the alarm about what they see as a dangerous erosion of this country's ability to influence events abroad without sending troops.

"Our overseas representatives {are} already working under the most severe budgetary conditions ever," Kissinger said recently. "Further cuts would necessitate closing many overseas posts, with the result that there would be less complete political and economic reporting on foreign conditions, less effective representation and advocacy of U.S. interests in foreign countries and less adequate services to U.S. citizens traveling abroad."

"Our strength cannot be maintained on the cheap," Christopher said in a speech at Harvard University in January. "And yet for a year now, the president and I have been fighting those forces in Congress who would cut our foreign affairs budget so deeply that we would have to draw back from our leadership. . . . These are not responsible proposals. They would weaken America precisely when we must remain strong."

The total budget for civilian international programs, the so-called 150 account, started to decline in the mid-1980s. It leveled off during the Bush administration, then resumed a downward slide in President Clinton's first year.

The 150 account includes the State Department, AID, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the U.S. share of United Nations operations. In actual dollars, it dropped from $25.2 billion in 1984 to $18.4 billion this year, a 27 percent decline. After adjusting for inflation, the decline was 51 percent -- and that does not take into account additional erosion caused by the decline of the dollar against many foreign currencies.

Except for Lumumbashi, the Bush administration mostly avoided outright closings -- in fact, it opened embassies in several countries created by the breakups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The Clinton administration, however, was unable to keep every post operating in the face of further budget cuts and a commitment to reduce the federal deficit, officials said.

The impact has been varied. In Gabon, citizens took to the streets to protest the closure of the USIA post there. Agency officials said they had to concentrate their dwindling resources in countries where the U.S. message of democracy had some hope of achieving results, and Gabon was not such a place.

Elsewhere in Africa, the effect of USIA cuts has been modest in terms of impact on local people but severe in terms of morale and effectiveness of those who have stayed on the job, Washington Post special correspondent Cindy Shiner reported. In Ghana, for example, local residents who work for USIA are paid less than they could earn in private business, and fear of layoffs is widespread.

At AID, the overall work force has been reduced from 11,500 to 8,700 and is heading down to 8,000. The number of full "sustainable development missions" -- on-site teams promoting long-term diversified economic development -- will decline from 70 at the start of the administration to 30.

Even the tiny arms control agency, which maintains full-time offices abroad only in Geneva, Vienna and The Hague, has been forced to cut back. According to ACDA Director John D. Holum, the agency no longer has a U.S. technical expert assigned to the U.N. weapons inspection team in Iraq.

"We used to be in the business of trying to help nuclear scientists and engineers in Russia make the transition into the civilian economy. We don't do that anymore unless another agency pays for it," Holum said.

Such traditional activities as sponsorship of cultural exchanges have been sharply curtailed. John Harrod, USIA's director for Europe, said that in his part of the world, "There are good things to do that we can't afford to do anymore," such as sponsoring tours by U.S. jazz or classical music performers.

The reductions affect more than traditional diplomats. Almost every U.S. embassy is home base for other U.S. government personnel: law enforcement officials, trade negotiators, defense attaches, farm export promotion teams and CIA agents.

According to a 1994 General Accounting Office study, only 38 percent of the U.S. government personnel in embassies work for the State Department, while 36 percent work for the Pentagon, 5 percent for Justice and 3 percent for Transportation. The other 18 percent includes representatives of the Treasury, Agriculture and Commerce departments.

Because defense, intelligence and law enforcement are faring better in the congressional budget wars than diplomacy, the State Department is trying to get other agencies to pick up a greater share of the costs of operating abroad. One ambassador to a major Asian country said he increasingly relies on CIA agents under diplomatic cover for political analysis because the intelligence agency can afford more of them.

The State Department is promoting the concept of "diplomatic readiness," similar to military readiness, in hopes of persuading Congress to divert some money from the defense budget into diplomacy and foreign aid -- activities that, in the diplomats' view, save money over time by reducing the need for military actions.

But there appears to be little realistic prospect that Congress will halt the downward trend in foreign affairs spending. Some key Republicans such as Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.) are openly hostile to the Foreign Service, whose activities Gramm derided as "building marble palaces and renting long coats and high hats."

Even members more sympathetic to international engagement have said the most they can hope for is to avoid further sharp cuts. Some were upset last year when they offered to find an additional $1 billion for the 150 account, only to have the administration rebuff the offer because the White House refused to identify an offsetting amount to be cut from domestic programs.

Christopher has supported what he called "the principle of universality" -- the idea that the United States must maintain an official diplomatic presence in every country where it is welcome.

However, the proliferation of tiny countries in recent years already has forced the State Department to abandon that principle. The embassy in Seychelles is closing this year; that country and the Comoros, where the embassy closed in 1993, will be served out of Mauritius. Jeanette W. Hyde, the U.S. ambassador in Barbados, is also the ambassador to Grenada, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda and St. Kitts and Nevis. In most of those tiny Caribbean states, there is no U.S. diplomatic staff at any level. The same is true in the Solomon Islands and Equatorial Guinea.

"I'm a believer in universality," said L. Craig Johnstone, the State Department's director of resources, plans and policy, "but you have to bite that bullet rather than erode your capabilities across the board. For 10 years we have cut back on training, recruitment and capabilities rather than close posts," he said, but now it may be necessary to sacrifice the presence abroad to maintain the overall capabilities of the diplomatic service.

When the time eventually comes to restore diplomatic relations with Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Libya, the money and personnel for those posts probably will have to come out of existing resources, officials said, thus increasing the pressure to close marginal posts elsewhere. The administration and Congress both envision further cuts in the 150 account over the next few years as part of budget-balancing plans.

The administration is seeking $5.45 billion for the State Department's 1997 share of the 150 account, about $170 million less than it sought last year. Christopher told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the amount is "the bare minimum we need to protect our nation's interests while balancing the federal budget in six years."

If Congress gives State what it is asking for, officials said, six posts on the "hit list" for 1997 will be spared: the embassy in Apia, Western Samoa; and the consulates in Florence; Edinburgh, Scotland; Curacao; and Matamoros and Hermosillo, Mexico. If Congress cuts deeper, those posts and probably more will have to go, Christopher said.

Even at current spending levels, Christopher said, many U.S. diplomats abroad are living in hardship conditions and using outmoded equipment. He said the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reeks of "sewer gas" seeping through the walls. In other posts, he said, diplomats are struggling against hardship conditions, antiquated equipment and inadequate living accommodations.

In Sarajevo, he said, "I was amazed to see a satellite dish rigged on the roof of the embassy using a barbecue grill.

"The State Department can only function with fewer people," Christopher said, "if those people are better trained and those posts are better equipped." CAPTION: SCALED-BACK DIPLOMACY How the United States is reducing its overseas operations International affairs spending -- which makes up 1 percent of total federal spending -- has been halved since 1984 after adjusting for inflation. And that drop, which has resulted in the closing of dozens of U.S. posts abroad, does not take into account the fall of the dollar against key foreign currencies. INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS BUDGET IN BILLIONS OF 1996 DOLLARS '84 $37.5 billion '96 $18.6 billion FEDERAL AGENCIES AFFECTED The international affairs budget includes these federal agencies: State Department U.S. Information Agency Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Agency for International Development OVERSEAS POSTS CLOSED, 1993-96 Consulates, consulates general and State Department branch offices Algeria Austria Australia Brazil Colombia Egypt France Germany Indonesia Italy (2) Kenya Martinique Mexico Nigeria Philippines Poland Somalia Spain Switzerland (2) Turkey Thailand (2) Venezuela Zaire Embassies Antigua and Barbuda Comoros Equatorial Guinea Seychelles Solomon Islands AID missions Afghanistan Argentina Belize Botswana Burkina Faso Cameroon Cape Verde Caribbean region Chad Chile Costa Rica Estonia Ivory Coast Lesotho Oman Pakistan South Pacific Switzerland Thailand Togo Tunisia Uruguay Zaire SOURCES: State Department, Agency for International Development