WASHINGTON — IF you'd like to know what Americans think about their world four years after the end of the cold war, just ask about an arcane issue like NATO. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations did that recently and came up with revealing results.
A plurality of people questioned by the council said they favored the idea of expanding the Western military alliance to include former Soviet-bloc states like Poland -- an idea championed by congressional Republicans.
But asked if the United States should get involved if Russia attacked Poland -- one threat NATO expansion is designed to address -- a majority said no.
According to the Chicago council, the contradiction epitomizes the public attitude that the US should remain engaged in the world after the cold war -- but not too engaged and only on matters that have direct bearing on the social and economic health of the US.
''Approximately two-thirds of the public and almost all of the leaders still favor an active role for the United States in world affairs,'' says the council, in its sixth quadrennial survey of public and leadership opinion on foreign affairs. ''Yet, in the absence of an overriding foreign policy concern at mid-decade, Americans are focused on problems at home.''
Despite a heightened concern with domestic affairs, neither Americans nor their leaders have become isolationists. Instead, the end of the cold war has produced what the council describes as a ''pragmatic internationalism.''
The council's survey, released today, says more Americans think the US has a bigger role to play in the world than ever before. But Americans are mostly interested in international issues -- expanding trade, slowing immigration, and stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the US -- that affect them directly. When it comes to intervention abroad, Americans have little interest in using force except in defense of Europe and oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
The biggest concern to Americans is the prospect of nuclear weapons in unfriendly countries. Eighty-two percent rated stopping nuclear proliferation a ''very important goal'' -- a 23 point jump since 1990. Among the biggest surprises: Most Americans are willing to normalize relations with North Korea; most strongly support an independent Palestinian state; and most think Japan should be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
The poll, entitled ''American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy, 1995,'' also records a significant weakening of the humanitarian impulse that once figured large in US foreign policy. In the four years since the last council survey, 33 percent fewer Americans support protecting weaker countries against aggression, 24 percent fewer are interested in defending human rights, and 19 percent fewer think the US has a responsibility for improving poor nations' standard of living -- all of which puts the US public in sync with the views of the Republican majority in Congress.
But on two issues, Congress and the public seem to disagree. In its most startling discovery, the council found that support for the UN has increased among Americans from 44 to 51 percent over the past four years, while a sizable number support placing US troops under UN command for peacekeeping operations. And although the large public appetite for big defense cuts recorded four years ago has diminished, most Americans do not want defense spending to increase, according to the council.
In a finding that could resonate in the run-up to the 1996 presidential elections, Americans give President Clinton low marks for his foreign policy and cite ''weak leadership'' as a major problem. Then again, the electoral impact of foreign policy is likely to be small, the council's finding suggest. Domestic issues -- crime, unemployment, and health care, in particular -- are likely to matter much more to Americans.