IT is ironic that at a time when the Reagan administration is returning more power and authority to states and local governments, the United States continues to carry a disproportionate burden in protecting and financially supporting many nations abroad.
Remember the calls after the first Reagan-Mondale debate to ''let Reagan be Reagan''? Where are the calls to let the current US administration be as conservative on the world scene as it is conservative on the domestic scene? Is there not an element of inconsistency in the present policy? Consider:
* One hallmark of the Reagan administration is its emphasis on self-help and entrepreneurship in domestic affairs. This effort symbolizes a dramatic shift from an enervating welfare mentality to a constructive workfare attitude. The administration is fulfilling the definition of a conservative as one who throws 75 feet of lifeline to someone 100 feet off shore and says, ''Swim the rest of the way - it's good for your character.''
* In late 1980 many US allies anticipated similar treatment from the incoming administration on the premise that allies who are more self-reliant would be better able to assist Washington in its efforts to ''stand tall'' once again. To date, those allies have been relieved that their apprehensions were unwarranted. While denouncing ''big-spending liberals'' at home, Reagan's security policy is pointedly trying to reinvigorate Truman- and Kennedy-style postwar liberal internationalism.
A sudden shift in foreign affairs cannot be contemplated with the same equanimity possible in domestic affairs because Washington has less control over circumstances that affect the outcome. However, some effort to be as conservative internationally as we are becoming domestically seems worthwhile. Why not seek an equally conservative decentralization of strategic responsibility among allies to foster more equitable burden sharing?
The purpose would not, of course, be a Carter-style attempt to shift burdens to allies to compensate for possibly fickle American willpower. Instead, it would focus on the desirability of US allies in Europe and Asia doing more for themselves and for the US, thereby helping Washington meet its defense and fiscal obligations. This would enable the US to truly ''stand tall,'' as the strong head of a mutually supportive alliance network that does not excessively strain the finite resources of the leader.
To accomplish this goal Washington requires a more conservative attitude overseas, comparable to that which prevails at home. Certain New Deal and Great Society programs, which had outlived their original rationales as US society was transformed by the successes of those same programs, were legitimately dismantled. This should be a model for their strategic counterparts devised in the 1940s to meet the need of weak allies for strong American leadership. As US allies worldwide benefited from that leadership and prospered in subsequent decades, they have transformed the circumstances against which the value of US alliances must be judged.
All major US allies are today capable of doing much more for themselves than they could in the formative years of the alliances. Many of those allies are the strategic equivalents of domestic welfare freeloaders who need to be motivated to get off the dole. Such a comparison seems, as is, inflammatory and should not be made explicit in US policy toward allies. But it is useful as a framework for analysis.
The key point is that neither the domestic nor the foreign recipients need the excess lifelines that are thrown at them. Just as cutbacks in domestic programs provide valuable incentives for self-reliance and enhanced initiative, so too would greatly increased US use of similar incentives overseas induce allies to share burdens with the US more equitably as part of a truly conservative strategic posture.
The international system has evolved rapidly in the last two decades, obviating the requirement for Truman-era-scale unilateral US responsibilities. A truly conservative approach to international interdependence promises to better meet changed circumstances by transforming interallied responsibilities. Then, the security of the US and its allies will be enhanced, as will our joint ability to provide security assistance to the truly needy areas of the world where we share strategic interests. Let's consider replacing strategic welfare with some form of strategic workfare for US allies.