There is nothing unusual in world affairs for a great power such as is the United States to desire to have friendly small neighbors whose behavior is reassuring and comforting to the great power.
And there is nothing unusual for small countries to resent the neighbor's great power and to resent even more any pressure by the big neighbor on the small country to cause it to conform to the ideology and foreign policy of the great power.
The relationship between any great power and its small neighbors has been difficult, and is likely to be for a long time to come.
The condition appears today in the still troubled relationship between the British and the Irish. It shows up in trouble between the Soviets and the Afghans, the Poles and the other neighbors in Eastern Europe. It is chronic between the US and the Latin Americans.
Right now most news of this kind comes from the efforts by the Reagan administration to coerce Nicaragua into conforming to the wishes of Washington in its foreign associations.
In particular the Reagan administration wants Nicaragua to cease and desist from aiding the rebels in El Salvador. In general it wants Nicaragua to cease associating with Cuba and the Soviet Union. It would like to have Nicaragua become anti-communist, pro-capitalist, and a member of the US cultural and trading community.
To this end it has embarked upon a detailed campaign dating from Nov. 17, 1981.
The campaign is supposed to be secret and covert. It has long since ceased to be either secret or covert. Full details are now in the public domain because someone leaked to the New York Times the text of a National Security Council memorandum which emerged from a meeting of the NSC in April 1982. It was printed in the Times of this April 7.
The text refers to a National Security Council Decision Directive of Nov. 17, 1981.
It also specifically speaks of ''covert'' operations which have been going on , and were to be increased.
In other words, the following are established facts.
Since November 1981 the US government has been conducting supposedly covert operations involving aid to various political and military groups opposed to the existing left-wing ''Sandinista'' regime in Nicaragua. A stepping-up of this campaign was decided at the meeting in April a year ago. Because of those decisions and the operations and because Congress has gradually learned about
the operations and must put up the money if they are to continue, there is now trouble between the President and the Congress over Nicaragua.
The mood of Congress on the subject is expressed by an amendment tacked onto the current military appropriations bill which specifically forbids any of the monies in the bill from being used ''for the purpose of overthrowing the Government of Nicaragua or provoking a military exchange between Nicaragua and Honduras.'' The amendment was approved by vote of 411 to 0. Obviously, Congress is uneasy about the US getting involved in Central American wars.
The amendment does not in itself block the Reagan program of support for Nicaraguan rebels. The administration denies the purpose is either to overthrow the Sandinista regime or provoke war between Nicaragua and Honduras. It says the purpose is ''supporting democratic states in Central America,'' protecting ''vital sea lanes,'' and to ''eliminate Cuban/Soviet influence in the region.''
It is difficult to think of the current regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (which Reagan policy supports) as being either democratic or likely to become democratic. Congress doubts that training, arm-ing, and funding Nicaraguan counterrevolu-tionaries is likely to promote democracy. It is also skeptical about the argument that vital US interests are involved. Above all, it is worried about what may happen next.
The latest news is that the Nicaraguan government (recognized as legitimate through most of the rest of Latin America and by Mr. Reagan's NATO allies in Europe) has declared that if US support for Nicaraguan rebels continues it will start backing Honduran rebels. This could, of course, lead to the US in the middle of a Nicaraguan-Honduras war complicated by civil wars in both countries.
The real issue is a question. Is it prudent and likely to be productive in the long run for the US to attempt to control by subversion and guns the political and ideological color and associations of its small neighbors to the south?
The Soviets have enforced their wishes on Poland and are trying to do the same, less successfully, in Afghanistan. Should the US do the same to El Salvador and Nicaragua - or let them work out their own futures?
To intrude as much as has already been done is to risk having the rest of the world conclude that the US treats its small neighbors just the way the Soviets do. Congress, clearly, yearns for a better way.