Gorbachev's era

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IN the rush to assess the potential of Mikhail Gorbachev's quick ascent to Kremlin heights, it is possible to slight the broader view of the Soviet Union's need to work out its own place in history and its significance as a collection of peoples with rights to a fulfilling human existence. It hardly seems a charitable or encompassing concept of mankind for those of the West to want some kind of disaster visited on the Soviet Union -- whether of its agriculture, which is enduring its sixth poor harvest in a row; its petroleum output, which has begun to dip after four decades of growth; or its goods production, hobbled by a central planning system that could benefit from a more market-oriented discipline such as China has begun to sport.

At the same time, the West cannot countenance the Soviet state's pattern of creeping expansionism, its subjugation of neighbors, or its attempts to seed distant ideological colonies, as in Central America or the African continent.

Mr. Gorbachev thus faces an ambivalent West which wants to hope for internal Soviet progress and reform but which feels pushed to strategic and other remedies to limit meddling Kremlin influence -- or even to affect the suppression of peoples within Soviet borders. Hence the differing reactions about the potential Gorbachev impact: that, being impatient, ambitious, and able, he may be able to make the most of the Soviet bureaucratic system's limited capacity to change; that as a personable and articulate individual, he may be able to offer a more stylish and accessible point of contact with the West; or that, bogged down by a collective leadership and a planning time frame of up to two decades, the Soviets may prove vulnerable to a personal style of leadership that could lend itself to the brutal cultism of the past.

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Mr. Gorbachev is at once seen as the likely captive of the collective system that produced the Politburo members who have just rewarded him the party's titular chair, and as a potentially tough adversary to head the Soviets' next expected offensive to divide America from its allies, this time on the issue of space weapons.

Experience will tell whether any or all of these expectations prove true.

At the moment, Mr. Gorbachev and his colleagues may have reason to feel themselves in danger of slipping behind the West in technology-based weapons. In a sense, the American ``star wars'' defensive program is an expression of a very American set of interests and traits, not simply a response to the Soviet strategic challenge. The scale of the idea, its projection into space, its demand for new generations of computers and breakthroughs in applied science, its contracts for countless small and large competing companies, all within a government-financed and White House-led program, is the kind of phenomenon that can excite the imagination of a free society. Whether it eventually yields anything like a defensive screen that can render missile attacks pointless may be another matter. So may be whether it provokes the Soviets to countermeasures that they cannot afford except at further cost to Soviet consumer comfort. It could still provide added stimulus to the United States technological lead, in the West as well as over the East. And quite apart from any perceived threat to the Soviets' current feeling of arms parity against the West, it offers the Kremlin an opening to sow doubt among America's partners about Washington's intentions.

Nonetheless, even while wary, the West should promote contacts with Kremlin leaders and the Soviet peoples, out of a larger concern for mankind's collective progress. The West should hold confident that the freedoms of thinking, inquiry, self-government, and expression will of themselves prove convincing, even in a closed society, and take root. Viewing the Soviets as interminable enemies gives the West an interminable enemy to fight.

A new Soviet leader with a tenure that could last through the end of this century provides an opportunity to seek success, not failure, out of immediate and future East-West contacts.

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