EVENTS on the world stage in 1988 will take place within boundaries which have been put in place by the events of the past year. It is highly unlikely that either the Soviet Union or the United States will break out of those boundaries. It means that so far as the great powers are concerned there will be a gradual but steady movement toward reduced tensions between Moscow and Washington. It is conceivable that the two might find themselves cooperating in an effort to damp down or even end the war between Iran and Iraq.
The two will almost certainly move in 1988 toward a second stage reduction in the number of nuclear weapons in their respective arsenals. They might make a beginning toward reduction in conventional weapons.
It also means that, for a second year, world news will be made more by local and regional activities than by the initiatives of the two great powers.
The central feature of the world scene right now is that economic affairs are at the top of the national agenda of both the US and the USSR.
The awareness of serious domestic economic problems was widespread in Moscow even in Leonid Brezhnev's day. It was foremost in the thinking of the leadership when it chose Mikhail Gorbachev for the top command. As far back as July 28, 1986, in a speech at Vladivostok, he declared what amounted to a moratorium on foreign adventures in order to give top attention to modernization of the Soviet economy.
The thrust of his policies ever since has been on reduced tensions along all his frontiers and modernization at home. He has not committed a single act of overt expansionism since he came to power in March of 1985.
In one sense the context of US foreign policy was ``equalized'' with that of the USSR by two events of 1987. The decline of the dollar and the October collapse of the stock market brought home to Americans the bald fact that they have been living on borrowed money. They, too, have an urgent economic problem at home.
Thus as we enter 1988, both Moscow and Washington recognize that the greatest present danger to the welfare of their respective peoples comes not from the other great power but from stagnation in one and profligacy in the other. The Soviets must modernize and the Americans must economize.
Until they do neither can afford the luxury of another cold war. It is accidental but fortunate that both need a breathing spell at the same time.
The government in Washington has been restructured for precisely this kind of a situation. The ideologues who believed in eventual war with the Soviets and sought confrontation, not accommodation, have largely been cleaned out. The National Security Council (NSC), the top command at the State Department, the control at the Pentagon and at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are all now in the hands of nonideological professionals.
Another Iran-contra affair is inconceivable with General Colin Powell at the NSC, George Shultz at the State Department, Frank Carlucci at the Department of Defense, and William Webster at the CIA. Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Caspar Weinberger, and William Casey are all gone. The only high-level holdover left from the ranks of the ideologues is Elliot Abrams who is still running the Central American desk (and the contras) at the State Department.
Another major overseas venture is inconceivable with Congress in the control of Democrats who are reluctant to give even nonlethal support to the contras.
All of which means that, even more in 1988 than in 1987, regional wars will make more news than empire building by either superpower. Undoubtedly there will be continued danger and tension in the Gulf. Peace has yet to come in Central America. The Arabs are resisting Israeli rule in the occupied territories. And the Irish Republican Army probably will still be tossing bombs in Ulster and England.
But the truly important news in 1988 will be made on the economic front. Can the American people learn how to consume less until they can again pay their bills? Will the hardliners of the old Communist Party in the USSR allow Mr. Gorbachev to modernize their system? Will Deng Xiaoping's new young men in Peking be able to keep his reform regime moving forward? And will the Western Europeans continue to provide for others a model of how to manage a modern economy?
These questions reflect big problems, all of them economic. All indications are that 1988 will be the year of the economists.