How The West Can Win The New World Order

As the Soviet Union is crumbling, so is a basic conception which has guided Western foreign policy for the better part of five decades: that a single government would enforce its writ across the gigantic land stretching between Poland and Vladivostok. In the pre-Gorbachev past, a seemingly permanent Soviet Union served as the common enemy whose menace kept Europe and the United States together. More recently the New World Order was also premised on the existence of a unitary Soviet Union: this time as a partner that could make and keep deals with the West.

Now all that is gone. To grasp the implications of the new vacuum, think back to Jan. 16. On that day United States war-planes began bombing Iraq-secure in the knowledge that the Soviet Union would not aid its former Arab client. The gulf war, in fact, was possible largely because the Soviets, at American request, refrained from using their United Nations veto to prevent the United States from making war on Iraq. But now it's not even clear how much longer there will be a permanent "Soviet" seat on the Security Council, or whether its occupant will wield a veto. The START nuclear disarmament agreement and the Conventional Forces in Europe pact are in limbo, as is the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). This summer the European Community signed new economic agreements with the Soviets. Says Dutch Foreign Minister Hans Van den Broek: "None of the officials who signed with us is there anymore."

Today's uncertainty should give way to a world made more livable by the declining threat of East-West nuclear war. The biggest short-term winner is the deficit-strapped United States , which may finally reap a multibillion-dollar "peace dividend." Pressure will grow in Congress to cut defense projects such as the B-2 bomber and the MX missile. And logically the $30 billion annual U.S. intelligence budget should shrink as the KGB threat does. A U.S. pullout from Europe could gain popularity. "It's increasingly possible" the United States and the Soviets will become allies in the not-too-distant future, says a senior State Department official.

Europe, however, finds itself facing an eastern flank which could very well degenerate into pauperized nations riven by ancient ethnic and religious conflict. At a minimum, this will make it harder for the wealthy nations of Western Europe to resist new applicants for membership in a European Community that had been planned as a tightly integrated club of a dozen rich countries. Before the failed coup in the Soviet Union, Western European leaders had decided that the best way to handle the rise of new democracies in Eastern Europe was to strengthen the European Community itself before accepting any new members. Polish, Hungarian and Czechoslovak applications for EC membership have been postponed indefinitely. Now pressure to open the Community to the burgeoning crowd of ex-communist countries is growing. United Europe, which was painstakingly assembled after years of negotiations and which doesn't really come into its own until 1992, is ill-prepared for that pressure. Nor are Eastern nations prepared for the inclusion they demand. "Admitting these new countries would be doing them the worst possible disservice," Jacques Delors, president of the EC Commission, told NEWSWEEK. "They couldn't compete."

Western Europe's worst nightmare is that the newly liberated peoples of the former Soviet frontier may soon begin fleeing the ruins of the bankrupt Soviet economy, moving west along the same path trod by Goths, Vandals and Tatars in the early Middle Ages. Western Europe, already saddled with almost 9 percent unemployment, would be swamped. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently warned that "it would be impossible for [the industrialized countries] to absorb a vast number of migrants from Eastern Europe, and especially from the Soviet Union, over a short period of time."

The best way to prevent such a scenario would be rapid recovery in the Soviet economy itself. But Western Europe, and especially Germany, which is spending tens of billions of dollars on resuscitating its formerly communist eastern section, have learned over the past two years that reforming command economies is a painful task that can lead to social unrest and the flowering of political fringe groups. Karl-Heinz Hornhues, vice chairman of the German Bundestag's foreign-affairs and defense committee, warns of "right-wing demagogues to replace the communist tyrants." Even more worrisome is the potential for ethnic strife among the U.S.S.R.'s dozens of "nationalities," from Moldova, just across the continent on the eastern border of Romania, to far-away Uzbekistan in Soviet Central Asia. In Yugoslavia, Europe has been unable to use its diplomatic and economic clout to control instability.

Could Western financial aid to the Soviet Union prevent the disaster Europe fears? President Bush is still skeptical. Last week he and British Prime Minister John Major announced a six-point program to help the Soviets. It was mostly a restatement of their previous position: they will support humanitarian and technical assistance now and will consider large-scale financial support later-after the Soviets demonstrate clear results from market reform. Bush and Major's main purpose in producing the plan seemed to be to defuse charges of stinginess emanating from Germany and other European advocates of aid. But the debate over aid to the Soviet Union may contain the seeds of even greater future disagreement among the industrialized powers. It is no accident that the leaders of countries that share the Eurasian land mass with the Soviet Union--Germany, France and Italy-are in the forefront of those clamoring for a Western bailout to stave off Soviet collapse. Nor is it any accident that the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Japan, geographically insulated from the effects of Soviet economic woes and reluctant to cough up the cash Europe wants, are resisting the idea. Without the common threat of an aggressive Soviet empire to drive them together, the Western allies are already pursuing their own diverging national interests.

That could lead to a historic missed opportunity. Like the Eastern Europeans before them, the peoples of the Soviet Union have overthrown communism in favor of the values the West claims to represent. Now it is up to the West jointly to encourage and support democracy and freedom among its former enemies. If it succeeds, the world can look forward to an era of extraordinarily enhanced security. If it fails, the new constellation in the east could be as dangerous and even more unpredictable than what came before.