When Secretary of Defense William Cohen told Pentagon officials working on the soon-to-be-released Quadrennial Defense Review that their planning should be "strategy driven, budget constrained," what he meant was "budget-driven, strategy-constrained." The quaint notion that America's defense posture should be determined by the international environment and the requirements it imposes on the world's leading power no longer has many adherents in Washington. Just ask the people who negotiated the budget deal whether they based their five-year defense figures on the nation's strategic requirements or the need to find a number that balanced by 2002. But ask them in private.

These days it's budget first, strategy second. Since the end of the Cold War, earnest efforts to shape a foreign and defense policy suited to America's role in the new era have been trampled in the bipartisan rush to plunder the one mine of "discretionary" spending not jealously guarded by powerful blocs of voters. Thus the strategy for maintaining American preeminence proposed by the Bush administration after the Gulf War, which called for spending between $ 290 billion and $ 300 billion (a modest 3.5 percent of today's GDP) on a base force of 1.6 million troops, gave way immediately to the Clinton administration's Bottom-Up Review, which called for a smaller, cheaper force capable of responding to two "major regional contingencies" (MRCs) simultaneously. But even that dubious plan died in infancy when it became clear that, despite its more limited conception of defense strategy, it was still too expensive for both the budget-cutting conservatives and the free-spending liberals.

Now, in order to squeeze more savings out of the budget -- without cutting non-defense discretionary spending, of course -- the "strategy" will have to change again. Forget the base force. Forget two MRCs. Those ideas are already "outdated," say the esteemed members of a congressionally appointed National Defense Panel. Why? Because we don't choose to afford them. According to the panel's chairman, Philip Odeen, "We ought to be operating around the [budget] numbers." And the numbers have nothing to do with strategy.

In this way have we been progressively "defining national security down," to paraphrase Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. After all, the world has not changed since 1992. All that's changed has been our willingness to spend money on defense and foreign policy. The need for the United States to preserve the peace and a stable balance of power in Europe and East Asia has not diminished, nor has the need to deter aggression by Iran or Iraq in the Gulf, to deter a Chinese attack against Taiwan and aggression in the South China Sea, to maintain stability in the Middle East, to prevent the spread of war in the Balkans, to fight and deter international terrorism, or to rescue Americans from flash-fires in Albania and Africa. The possibility that the United States might confront two crises in two different theaters is neither larger nor smaller than it was four years ago.

If anything, America's overseas commitments are growing, as are the risks those commitments might entail. Within the next couple of years, the United States is likely to extend security guarantees to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, and perhaps to other Central European and Baltic states. Do Clinton administration officials and Republican boosters of NATO expansion believe we can guarantee the security of these new NATO members with fewer army divisions, fewer air wings, and lower overall defense spending? Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, China is a rising power. Whether one chooses a policy of engagement or containment of China, a strong U.S. military presence in East Asia is necessary for preserving peace and stability. And it is one way of steering Chinese development along a peaceful course.

Members of Congress and Clinton administration officials who negotiated last week's budget deal ought to say which of the above policies they intend to forgo in coming years. For even at the levels of defense spending proposed by the administration and the Republicans before the deal was struck, many of these missions, which today we take for granted as part of the normal exercise of American power around the world, will have to be dropped.

Bush administration officials figured 12 army divisions were needed just to preserve the international status quo after the Cold War. The Clinton administration reduced that number to 10. At the spending levels reportedly contained in the budget deal, we'll be lucky to maintain nine and not at an acceptable level of readiness. The United States used seven divisions in Operation Desert Storm alone. Clinton defense officials estimated that one major regional contingency, like Korea, would require between four and five divisions. Since two divisions are tied down by the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia, and parts of two more divisions are in Saudi Arabia or engaged in training in the United States, any crisis in Korea would stretch the army to the point of operational collapse. The other services are not in much better shape. The Air Force has had tactical squadrons cut by 28 percent, and experts estimate that its ability to move rapidly between different theaters has fallen by about 22 percent. The Navy has also been forced to cut significantly into its ability to support overseas operations and can deploy fewer carrier task forces around the world. When American presidents need a show of American resolve to deter potentially dangerous nations as President Clinton did in the seas around Taiwan last year -- they usually call on aircraft carriers. The question is, five years from now, will there be anyone at the other end of the line?

Some defense experts have argued that in the future era of high-technology warfare, current force levels won't be needed. They're almost certainly wrong: The successful high-tech air-war against Iraqi forces did not preclude the need for a massive ground attack to retake Kuwait. But even if they are right, the proposed levels of defense spending will not produce the high-tech force they desire. Funds for modernization continue to be cut drastically -- over 50 percent since the mid-1980s. Even chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili has warned that procurement spending is 40 percent below what it should be. Funds for research and development of the next generation of high-tech weapons, which have already been cut a staggering 71 percent since 1985, are to be cut another 16 percent in the years 1997-2002 under the Clinton administration's original budget proposal.

Debates have raged in the defense community about whether we should spend money to maintain force structure and readiness or to build the new high-tech weapons we will need a decade or so from now. The truth is, we need to be doing both. In fact, under the defense budget now proposed, we are likely to do neither.

The Clinton administration, which daily proclaims the United States the "indispensable" nation, seems not to be the least bit concerned that its defense budgets are rapidly turning us into the "indisposed" nation. But Republicans in Congress haven't yet shown any greater sense of responsibility for securing the nation's future. The Clinton defense-budget figures for future years were actually higher than the Republicans', and in a dubious victory, the Republicans prevailed in the budget deal. The result is a further cut in defense spending over the next five years of about $ 80 billion in real dollars. Non-defense discretionary spending, one need hardly add, continues to grow.

No leader of either party has had the courage to tell the American people that preserving the current benevolent international environment may be less expensive than fighting the Cold War, but not that much less. We keep cashing in the same "peace dividend" over and over.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, the United States spent over 6 percent of its GDP on defense. In the Bush years, the defense budget fell to about 4 percent of GDP. It is now heading toward 3 percent, and at spending levels envisioned by the budget deal it will fall to around 2.7 percent by 2002. You have to go back before Pearl Harbor to find Americans spending less of our national wealth on defense than we do today.

Republican leaders, who once had a well-deserved reputation for preserving the nation's strength and security, ought to know better. Spending cuts are nice, but what's really likely to break the budget is another major war -- like the one we are inviting when the world's foremost power cuts its military forces deep into the bone.