WE are nationalists," says Republican Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, "we will put America first."Mr. Buchanan is a formidable rhetorician of the right. His arguments for tax cuts and his ridiculing of George Bush's "new world order" foreign policy give his message clout for February's New Hampshire primary. Jobs and a "take care of our own" mentality are the politics of the hour. But this "new nationalism ... where in every negotiation the American side seeks advantage and victory," as Buchanan put it, must be questioned. Many of Buchanan's issues - reduced defense spending in Europe and Japan, tougher trade and immigration policies - are fair game. Yet when a US presidential candidate shouts m a nationalist" in today's global arena, that term needs attention. In the post-cold-war world, "nationalist" does not have a positive connotation. Western Europe, having created havoc over the years through nationalistic power politics, is trying to make the term obsolete through the European Community. "Nationalism" in Croatia or the Ukraine is not equivalent to "democracy." Just ask Boris Yelstin, who must fend off right-wing nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who desires a Russian "Fatherland." Nationalists often define themselves in opposition to others. This may work for some smaller states, but not the world's leading democracy. America has historically dissipated nationalism through pluralism. That's the US refinement on the English institutions Buchanan is rightly fond of. "New nationalism" should not play into the old nationalism. Which isn't to dismiss healthy national self-interest. Americans, weaned on pluralism and liberality, don't always recognize the loyalty to power and race that defines many cultures and sets the rules by which they operate. Americans must be realistic and wise about the world they are in. Jingoism, false pride, exclusion, and division have been fruits of nationalism. Buchanan should articulate why his "nationalism" is different.