AT a time when major decisions are being made about the future direction of United States foreign policy, it is vital that such decisions be made on the basis of facts, not myth.
Opposition to foreign aid, for example, comes in part from a widespread impression that the US, as compared with other industrial countries, is a heavily taxed and generous nation. In fact, on a per capita basis Americans share less of their wealth with their government and other nations than the people of any other major industrial country.
Take taxes. From the outcry against taxes, one would assume that US citizens' tax burden is one of the greatest in the world. Statistics suggest otherwise. In terms of tax revenue as a percentage of gross national product (GNP), the US ranks near the bottom among developed countries. According to statistics of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, taxes represent 30 percent of the US GNP in contrast to 31 for Japan, 37 for Germany, 43 for France, and 56 for Sweden. Even the peoples of considerably poorer countries such as Greece and Portugal pay higher per capita taxes than do Americans.
Popular belief also holds that the US is excessively generous with foreign aid and that such aid occupies a significant portion of the federal budget. A recent survey by the University of Maryland found that some Americans believe that as much as 15 percent of federal expenditures may go to assist other countries; those surveyed thought that 5 percent might be an appropriate amount.
The actual proportion of the federal budget going to foreign aid is less than 1 percent. In 1992, the US spent two-tenths of 1 percent of its GNP on foreign assistance, including both bilateral and multilateral contributions. The US thus ranked 20th among the 21 donor nations of the Development Assistance Council; only Ireland ranked lower. The three Scandinavian countries -- Sweden, Norway, and Denmark -- led the list, each providing more than 1 percent of GNP in aid.
Those unmoved by such statistics will argue that the US has carried the lion's share of international obligations in the past, and it is time someone else bear the burdens. Many will argue also that, in dollar terms, the US, with its major contributions to the United Nations and the multinational lending agencies, still does more than any other nation. In 1992, US development assistance totaled $11.7 billion, ahead of Japan's $11.2 billion. If, however, the $8 billion of the foreign assistance appropriation that goes to meet the Camp David accord commitment to Israel and Egypt were eliminated, the US would rank below France, Germany, and Italy in actual funds expended.
The desire in both the government in Washington and the public to spend less is understandable. The budget deficit and domestic priorities cry out for a rearrangement of past expenditures.
The tragedy is that the need for funds from wealthier countries to mitigate the effects of disaster are greater than ever -- whether the help be concentrated on refugees, disease, hunger, or rebuilding. Certainly some international programs the US has supported have had their problems, although the tendency of critics to dwell on negative anecdotes exaggerates the difficulties.
Americans expect the US to remain a world leader. The quadrennial survey of opinion on US foreign policy issued last month by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations notes: ''Approximately one-half the public and the leaders believe the United States plays a more important and powerful role in the world today than it did 10 years ago, the highest number recorded in these surveys [which go back to 1974].''
Such a role cannot continue without the commitment of both human and financial resources. The US may choose not to match the levels of its past commitments. Such a decision would be rational, given the end of the cold war and needs at home. If such a decision is made, however, it should not be on the basis that the US has been either excessively burdened or extraordinarily generous.