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.

But Gorbachev could do nothing of the kind. In part, this was because the Soviet Union had been Saddam’s chief backer since the days of Brezhnev, beating out the French as Iraq’s main arms supplier. But more important, Gorbachev could not speak like that and expect Bush’s approval for the Soviet Union’s admission into the Western financial community or U.S. help in the extraction of Soviet oil and other minerals. Even if one takes at face value Gorbachev’s assurance that “it would be very superficial, oversimplified, to judge that the Soviet Union can be bought for dollars,” this does not alter the argument. One is tempted to paraphrase the old Chartist ditty about British journalists:

There is no way to bribe or twist,
Thank God, an honest “Soviet socialist.”
But if you knew what he could do
unbribed there is no occasion to…

Indeed, the argument about Russia’s joining the capitalist concert of nations would only be strengthened, showing the evolution of Soviet foreign policy as part of a deep conversion and not merely the result of a bribe. Perestroika began gloriously in glasnost as a healthy, if inevitable, rejection of the Stalinist heritage. Then, as Soviet leaders got bogged down in the economic crisis without any socialist perspectives, they veered in the direction of capitalism. Something similar is happening in diplomacy. Gorbachev’s “new thinking” triumphantly inaugurated a new era, showing how little was really needed to set the world on the road to disarmament. But those beautiful beginnings now Seem to have degenerated into a latter-day version of the Holy Alliance, taken here loosely to refer to that conservative pact arrived at in Vienna in 1815 by the powers that had defeated Napoleon; its purpose was to preserve the status quo in Europe.

The two trends are interconnected. That both Pravda and Izvestia should now be referring to “American imperialism” in quotations is not accidental. The quickened march toward private property and the market, the burning desire to be fully involved as quickly as possible in the international capitalist division of labor, lead logically to “the emerging world order” proclaimed by Eduard Shevardnadze from the U.N. rostrum in New York.

If this interpretation is correct, then the current honeymoon between the Soviet Union and the United States may not be due to the Copernican discovery made by Vitaly Korotich and Studs Terkel that what makes Americans happy also brings happiness to the Russians [see “A Couple of Guys Talking About Peace,” July 30/August 6]. It may be due to the acceptance by Moscow of a less lofty principle–that what is good for General Motors (or, to use a more apt cliché, the Seven Sisters) is good for the world at large.

After such harsh words one might normally expect a sigh for Stalin or at least some nostalgia for the “proletarian internationalism” of comrade Brezhnev. Not in this case. To argue that efforts are now under way to restore capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe does not at all imply that this part of the world was previously in any way socialist. Similarly, to claim that the Soviet Union is now quite openly moving into the international concert of great powers does not at all suggest that hitherto its diplomacy was an instrument of socialist revolution.

Only for a brief spell after 1917 did the Bolsheviks view their survival as dependent on the westward spread of world revolution. Thereafter Stalin subordinated the international Communist movement to the interests of his own foreign policy in a ruthless and often shameful fashion (the hand-over of German Communists to the Nazis and the betrayal of Greek guerrillas are among the best-known examples). The point is that during the Stalin era millions of people throughout the world were convinced that Moscow was the headquarters of international revolution, that the Soviet Union was the main front in this struggle and that a new socialist order was being forged there despite the odds.

In the past third of a century, say since Khrushchev’s indictment of Stalin in 1956, the situation has been much more ambiguous. Even before glasnost, only a rapidly dwindling band still believed that the Soviet Union offered a solution to the major questions of our time. Nevertheless the Russians had a system distinctly different from capitalism, and the aura attached to its name had an influence on its foreign policy. It was still in Moscow’s interests to appear as the champion of the downtrodden. When Khrushchev negotiated the rules of coexistence with Kennedy, he had to claim, at least officially, that the nuclear stalemate would not hinder movements of national liberation. Quite the contrary: The Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War were part of that confrontation over the right to rebel against the established order.

Historians will argue for years over the influence of the October Revolution on the fate of socialism. At present, very negative balance sheets are being drawn in Europe for the abortive experiment in the export of revolution. In the Third World, on the debit side is the fact that, wherever it came to the rescue of a struggling regime, Moscow tried to impose its political and economic model, even in countries where revolution had genuinely come from below. On the credit side, one must remember that the Soviet Union was the only check on the Pax Americana, the only external obstacle to U.S. imperialism–without quotations. Of course. the radicalism of the Soviet posture should not be exaggerated. The gerontocrats who sat in the Kremlin before Gorbachev, while happy to grab whatever fell into their laps, were no -great adventurers. They avoided direct confrontation with Washington where it really mattered, notably in the Middle East. Nevertheless, for all its ambiguity. it is this chapter of Soviet resistance that is now coming rapidly to an end.

This ambiguity still weighs on us all. I had in mind a title for this piece as I sat down to write: “The Unholy Alliance.” This implied that George, Maggie, Helmut or Françis could, in my opinion, be expected to stoop to any level, because that is the nature of a bourgeois politician. Mikhail, on the other hand, because of 1917, socialism or whatever, could not go beyond certain bounds without stigma. But I was mistaken. The appropriate title is clearly “The Holy Alliance,” a reference to that pact alluded to earlier. The paradox is that the Soviet Union is joining the contemporary and worldwide equivalent of the Holy Alliance at the very time when, at home, it is entering a period of major social upheaval.

None of this should be taken to mean that Russia is vanishing as a major actor in world politics. Far from it. There was no love lost among the members of the original Holy Alliance either, and each of them had plenty of leeway for action. Today, although its economic weaknesses are readily apparent, the Soviet Union remains a nuclear giant. As such, it is still the United States’ only serious partner in disarmament negotiations. The French fear of Germany and the European resentment of American domination are just two of the many cards that a skillful player like Gorbachev can use when negotiating with Washington. The Soviet Union, stretching across the Urals, is a Eurasian power: today, conscious of the advantages this offers, it is trying to improve its relations with both China and Japan. Indeed, it could still play an important and perhaps a moderating role in the present gulf crisis.

Ultimately, a nation’s diplomacy reflects its domestic structure and policies. In the long run, then, Soviet foreign policy will depend on the outcome of its venture on the road to capitalism. In the meantime, it will be shaped by more immediate struggles. The so-called radicals like Boris Yeltsin or the mayors of Moscow and Leningrad have a very definite foreign policy agenda: They believe that aid begins at home. They are against any “ideological” investments and “egalitarian” ventures; indeed, they would like not only to cut aid but also to redeem some bad debts from the Third World. If Gorbachev keeps full control, with his greater awareness of diplomatic assets, the transition will be slower. Cuba will provide an immediate test of the new strategy. But the Persian Gulf crisis has already made the main lesson plain. Moscow no longer pretends to offer a historical alternative to the West. The Soviet Union has ceased to be a protagonist, the chief antagonist, in the major contest of our times.

As I said at the start, in this hour of apparent victory the United States perceives the beginnings of its potential defeat. At the same time, the end of Soviet ambiguity presents progressive movements throughout the world with both challenges and opportunities. That clearly is a matter for another letter. For now, it is enough just to draw attention to the bitter end of a great illusion.