RECENTLY I asked a psychologist friend why American foreign policy seemed so incoherent and ineffectual, and he offered a provocative hypothesis. One can, he posited, predict the general nature of a nation's policies from the parlor games its people play and the movies they watch. In the United States today, he noted, the most popular game is Trivial Pursuit and the most widely discussed movie is ``Rambo.'' The title of the game Trivial Pursuit defines its content.
But what are the distinguishing elements of Ramboism?
An undiscriminating commitment to physical violence as an instrument for the easy solution of complex problems regardless of the consequences to innocent bystanders.
A compulsion to operate alone without regard for constraints of law or morality in imitation of the epic role model -- the lone cowboy who conducts his own shoot-out.
This bizarre combination of an addiction to trivial pursuits and a taste for unilateralist violence provides the most likely explanation of America's recent antics in Lebanon, Grenada, Nicaragua, and Libya.
In Lebanon we recklessly committed our marines to a multinational force, despite the warning by many of us that American troops would be special targets of violence; even after 265 marines were killed, the President continued to leave marines in a vulnerable position while announcing that the US had ``vital interests in Lebanon.'' So instead of evacuating the marines, we brought up our huge flotilla of battleships and began firing 16-inch shells wildly at the Lebanese coast. Then we suddenly withdrew.
In the case of Nicaragua, the hypothesis explains the administration's squandering of political capital for the doubtful privilege of sending inadequate financial help to inadequate ``contra'' forces.
It explains also our invasion of Grenada, which will probably be recorded as a ``famous victory,'' because it resulted in the awarding of 8,600 medals even though only 7,000 American troops took part in the exercise. Still, I was vastly relieved when the operation was completed. Think how we would all have felt if the opposition Grenadians had won!
Finally, it explains why we launched a vast air raid that killed large numbers of Libyan civilians.
Except for Grenada, all four of these adventures were characterized by what Henry Kissinger has called ``an incompatibility of rhetoric and policy.'' Our 600 marines could not possibly prop up the Maronite-dominated regime in Lebanon, any more than the contras can hope to overthrow the Sandinista government or our air raid against Libya stop terrorism. Nor do these disparate operations fit within any discernible strategic pattern. The only common theme in these adventures is that they gave Americans the impression that their country was ``standing tall'' -- whatever that may mean; in other words, they were ``Dr. Feelgood'' operations.
If one prefers a less cynical explanation, I would suggest that the administration conceived these relatively risk-free adventures primarily to deflect popular attention from the central issue: How should we bring under control the nuclear menace our scientists invented some 40 years ago. As I see it, we are no closer to taming the nuclear monster than we were at the beginning.
Instead of working to gain control of nuclear weapons, our leaders are devoting their attention to dismantling the arms control agreements that have been painfully reached over the last two decades. President Reagan, after all, has persistently opposed every arms control agreement negotiated since the beginning.
In the President's view of the world drama, only two players deserve top billing -- America with its noble commitment to righteousness and free enterprise, pitted in relentless conflict with the ``Evil Empire'' -- ``The focus of evil in our time'' -- implying that our nation should not do deals with the devil; the only way to cope with evil is to fight it.
He made that point as long ago as the early 1960s: ``We are being told that we can sit down and negotiate with this enemy of ours, that there is a little right and a little wrong on both sides. How do you compromise between good and evil? How do you say to this enemy that we can compromise our belief in God with his dialectical determinism? How do you compromise with men who say we have no souls, there is no hereafter, there is no God?'' NOR is the President alone in his negative attitude. When the magazine Policy Review asked administration officials and neo-conservative defense intellectuals close to the administration, ``Have [arms] control negotiations with the Soviet Union benefited the US?,'' it received consistently sour answers.
What America should do, these administration gurus seemed to imply, is to terminate the charade at Geneva and vigorously pursue the deadly serious business of exploiting our advantage in wealth and technology to expand and improve our nuclear arsenal of both offensive and defensive weapons.
The President's theological approach, reinforced by a simple, sublime faith that American scientists can, on command, work miracles to stop Soviet missiles in midflight, clearly rules out any possibility of achieving productive negotiations to reduce nuclear arsenals.
Yet the President's addiction to his ``star wars'' fantasy calls to mind some further cautionary words of President Dwight Eisenhower, who said from long experience and observation: ``There is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.'' And as such an action he specified: ``a huge increase in the new elements of our defense'' or a ``dramatic expansion in basic and applied research.'' Then he concluded wisely: ``In holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.'' THE logic of the situation makes it clear why, so long as the President remains doctrinally stuck on his star wars proposal, the Soviet Union will never agree to new arms control measures.
It is not that the Soviets believe that the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) will be fully effective. But so long as we are going forward with the exploration and ultimately the deployment of even a limited system of point defense, they must feel free to enlarge their strategic arsenal without restrictions of any kind.
Despite the rhetoric pouring out of Washington, no one with whom I have talked honestly believes that we can ever achieve the President's fanciful objective of -- to use his language -- rendering the Soviet missile force ``impotent and obsolete.'' A few months ago during a private conversation with the administration official who, probably more than any other, provides the intellectual impetus for the star wars project, I asserted that the President's objective was pure fantasy. He replied: ``Of course we all know that. We're embarrassed by it, and we wish he'd start playing a different record. Obviously, we can't hope to build a system that will safeguard American cities or protect the American population, but we should be able to shield at least some of our own nuclear arsenal. We should be able to stop a substantial percentage of the Soviets' nuclear weapons from reaching their targets.''
To that I replied, ``Well, if that's all you hope to accomplish, then the proposal as represented is fraudulent; it is in realistic terms nothing more than a stimulus to escalation; Moscow will have to augment its nuclear arsenal by a factor of ``X'' to enable it to launch enough weapons to ensure that the critical minimum gets through. Then we'll have to match that escalation.''
At that point he terminated the conversation, turned, and left.
There is a special topical poignancy in the administration's obstructionist attitude at this time when, at long last, there is a Soviet leader in power who seems, on the evidence available so far, capable of facing the nuclear problem rationally -- and he has made some quite remarkable proposals.
In 1967 and '68, we tried hard to dissuade the Russians from going forward with their effort to produce a strategic defense, because that would, we agreed, rule out any possible reduction in offensive arms.
Now, as Paul C. Warnke, chairman of the Committee for National Security, has pointed out, the roles are reversed: President Reagan is quoting almost the exact arguments that Premier Alexei N. Kosygin made at his Glassboro visit in February 1967, when the Soviets rejected the idea of controls over defensive weapons. What Mr. Kosygin contended was that, in the Soviet view, defense is good, offense is bad, offense is dangerous, but defense is safe. Today our leaders are now making the same speech to the Soviets that the Soviets made to us back in 1968, 1969, and 1970.
Again, in 1963, we negotiated a limited test ban treaty that stopped atmospheric testing. At the time, we rejected a comprehensive test ban, on the ground that it could not be verified except by on-site inspection, to which the Soviets were then unwilling to agree. But now the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, says that Russia will accept any form of verification that we want to propose.
The Reagan administration's answer to that show of flexibility is one of the most absurd non sequiturs a great nation has ever put forward with a straight face in diplomatic history. Instead of offering to join with the Soviets in halting all nuclear testing, we said: ``We're going ahead with testing, but you're welcome to come over and monitor one of our nuclear tests. Then we'll come over and monitor one of your tests.'' ON yet another issue, weapons to shoot down satellites, the United States has taken a similarly obstructionist view. General Secretary Gorbachev has for some time been proposing that we agree to ban anti-satellite weapons, and all logic would dictate that the American government should embrace that proposal enthusiastically; after all, the United States needs satellites for observation of the Soviets' closed society far more than the Soviet Union needs them for observation of our open society. Yet, rather than recognizing the advantage to us of banning anti-satellite weapons, Washington has with great fanfare demonstrated to the Soviets how to shoot down satellites.
One further item.
The 50 percent cut in intercontinental strategic weapons that the Soviets have recently suggested was originally a Reagan administration proposal. But the Defense Department is now saying, in effect, that we don't want to cut back on the number of offensive weapons because then there would be fewer targets for the Soviets to strike.
It is time for our country to halt its sleepwalking before we stumble over a cliff. Time is of the essence and speed is imperative.
George W. Ball, former US undersecretary of state, recently delivered the George B. Kistiakowsky Lecture at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This column is based on that lecture.