The balance of power in international relations shifts slowly. Yet there are moments of truth when light is suddenly thrown on the altered landscape, A showing not only higher peaks and lower valleys but also perspectives that are entirely new. The Kuwait crisis is acting as such an eye-opener. In August, the unconditional Soviet approval of the United Nations resolution giving its blessing to U.S. intervention was not merely additional proof that Moscow no longer has the ambition to be the leader of the have-not nations. It suggested that the Soviet Union, in keeping with its domestic developments, is ready to take its place in the capitalist concert of nations as one of the up holders of the status quo. (Was the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to a “Communist” leader for the first time coincidental?)
Hence the meeting in Helsinki on September 9 between Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev was, in a sense, an encounter between the suzerain and a vassal–an important vassal with plenty of room for maneuver, and one whose backing, or blessing, is most precious, but no longer a rival offering an alternative vision of the world. No wonder that Washington welcomed the Soviet Union into the Middle East–or that the Saudis established diplomatic relations with Moscow–since the former capital of revolution was now accepting the West’s rules of the game.
But history has its ironies. The moment when Washington at last achieves its postwar objective of becoming the clearly dominant superpower also marks the visible beginning of the end of its hegemony. The British poodle, though it may bark like a bulldog, cannot alone conceal the fact that the Western alliance is no longer what it used to be. Secretary of State James Baker, visiting the European capitals and Tokyo with cap in hand, illustrated the reason for this metamorphosis, which is the shift in the global financial balance. Admittedly, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were ready to pay for the cost of the operation, a German-dominated Europe as yet has no clear policy of its own, and Japan is a giant only in economic terms. Thus the United States may well try to replace OPEC or extend NATO beyond the frontiers of Europe. But the words of Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis about “no taxation without representation” are a sign of things to come.
Meanwhile, is it fair to describe Gorbachev as the United States’ junior partner? To back up my m e I shall suggest what, in my view, a socialist leader might have said in Helsinki. He, too, would have condemned Saddam Hussein, the mass murderer of–among others–Kurds and Communists. But he would also have reminded the assembled press that when the Butcher of Baghdad was using chemical weapons, most of them turned a blind eye or even praised him for defending civilization against the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Persian threat; their current indignation is thus not above suspicion. And he would have answered those who, like U.N. secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, claim that one sin (in Palatine) does not justify another (in Kuwait). While this is perfectly true, he would have said the fact that an organization, or a society, punishes some crimes and ignores others tells us a great deal about that organization or that society.
My imaginary socialist leader, while denying the credentials of the Iraqi propagandists, would not have denied the truth of some of their arguments. In a poverty-stricken Middle East, the hidden or open wealth of the sheiks, emirs and other sultans–the billions invested in Western business, the millions spent conspicuously in the casinos of the French Riviera–is equally indecent. He would have asked President Bush, ex-boss of the C.I.A., when and where he developed his horror for the big bullies harming their smaller neighbors: in Guatemala, Grenada or Panama? He would have told the Western politicians and their scribes that above their hypocritical odes to the rule of law floats not the perfume of Arabia but the stench of petroleum. Above all, in this North-South conflict he would have spoken to the people of both sides, addressing them over the heads of their rulers.