Washington — When the Soviet Union offers agricultural assistance to a developing country these days, it is viewed as ``more of a threat than anything else,'' a European diplomat says. He is talking about a perception that is becoming more and more central to superpower calculations: Soviet influence in the developing world is not what it once was.
Some experts say it is slipping, and the Soviets seem unable or unwilling to halt the decline. Others argue that the Soviets are merely ``consolidating'' their influence, and being wary about overextending themselves.
``Since the early 1980s, no country in the world has come under significant Soviet influence,'' says Stephen D. Goose, a researcher at the Center for Defense Information (CDI).
Today, the Soviet military is still strong. The Soviet economy, though performing unspectacularly, is far from collapse. But when it comes to competition in the developing world, the Soviet Union is, according to many Western experts, a superpower in eclipse.
Because it deals in nonconvertible currencies with artificial exchange rates, the Soviet Union does not provide much of a market for the developing world. And because it must import both food and advanced technology from the West, experts say, the Soviet Union is hardly considered a fount of development expertise or a model for emulation in the third world.
Moreover, some analysts believe that time -- particularly the end of decolonization -- may have passed the Kremlin by. When European powers were being shorn of their colonies in the developing world, the Soviets happily provided arms and training to guerrilla forces eager to hasten that process.
But what do they do for a followup?
``After these countries have gotten their independence, what do they need?'' asks the European diplomat. ``They need economic assistance. And they aren't going to get that from the Soviet Union.''
Conventional wisdom has it that when Soviet attraction has waned, Soviet muscle has worked. But even that assumption is being called into question.
Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, says, ``The Soviet influence in the world today is far less than it was when I came to the Senate in 1966.''
Senator Pell made his remarks at the unveiling of a CDI study that concluded, ``With the exception of Eastern Europe and Mongolia, the Soviet Union has been unable to sustain influence in foreign countries over long periods of time. The Soviets have been unable to command loyalty or obedience.''
CDI director of research David Johnson says, ``Our whole study goes to the point of refuting the notion of irreversability'' of Soviet domination. He notes that in several countries, such as India or Egypt, there has been a considerable investment of Soviet time and money, without an apparent payback.
Robert Litwak, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, sees another element in Soviet restraint in the third world.
That is the growing willingness -- and ability -- of the US not only to counter Soviet influence-building in the third world, but to weigh it heavily in the balance when it comes to striking new agreements on matters such as arms control. ``[The Soviets] have seen how activism in the third world can derail relations with the US,'' Mr. Litwak says.
But some experts say it is a mistake to assume indefinite Soviet quiescence in the developing world.
``Opportunities for Communist revolution continue to develop, and the Soviets [continue] to take advange of them,'' argued University of Washington analyst Herbert J. Ellison at a recent conference at the Smithsonian Institution.
Mr. Ellison went on, ``The political instability and volatility of the third world is unlikely to diminish, particularly in its poorest segments. And whatever the past and present costs of the effort in the third world, the Soviet commitment to it appears undiminished, and the resources of the Soviet Union alone, not to mention those of its allies, continue to grow.''
Litwak says, ``The bottom line for us is that the Soviet Union is going to remain flexibly opportunistic.'' Accordingly, he says, ``We have to hold up our end of the competition.''
Only when the US is perceived as capable of opposing Soviet adventurism, he says, can ``things [like] diplomacy and economic leverage work.''