As a reporter who spent much time in Eastern Europe (including the Soviet Union) in the early years after World War II and has observed world affairs ever since, I find myself in these days having to pinch myself to accept what my eyes are trying to tell me. It is as though I have just emerged from a tunnel into a new and totally different world. What is going on?
In the Baltic states Lithuanians, Estonians, and Latvians parade through their streets calling for cultural and political independence. And the Soviet police and soldiers stand by and watch.
At this writing there had been no arrests, no beatings, no repression reported.
In Prague, thousands marched down the great, broad Wenceslas Street and reached the center of the ancient city unhindered, while another wave of strikes swept across Poland.
In both Czechoslovakia and Poland, the police eventually clamped down on the demonstrators. But their reaction was mild, by Eastern European standards.
And all the time Soviet troops are pulling out from Afghanistan and marching home.
At the United Nations, Soviet diplomats were being helpful in trying to work out an end to the war in Angola, which would mean Soviet and Cuban troops pulling out of Central Africa.
Also at the UN, Soviet diplomats helped work out the plans for policing an armistice ending the long war between Iran and Iraq.
In far Asia some Vietnamese troops were pulling out of Cambodia because, it is said in diplomatic quarters, of Soviet influence on the Vietnamese. Vietnam itself is said to be feeling around for the possibility of Western economic aid to make up for the support it is no longer getting from Moscow as generously as in the past.
It is obvious from the above that the Soviet Union has deliberately and consciously gone over from an active and offensive foreign policy to a recessive and defensive policy. The Soviets are simply not today actively building a worldwide empire. They are doing all the things which reduce tension with the US and reduce fear of themselves in Western Europe and in Asia. They are in the process of meeting all three of the conditions China has long insisted upon for a resumption of ``normal relations'' - reduction of Soviet troops on the Chinese frontier, withdrawal from Afghanistan, and withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia.
All of the above, of course, raises two questions: Why? And for how long?
The first is easier to answer than the second.
By looking back it becomes easier to understand why the power world around us is so different. When I started writing for this newspaper in 1929, there was only one true superpower: Only Britain was a major factor in the story of all the continents. The Royal Navy did rule the seven seas.
But then there arose two challengers determined to change that world. Germany and Japan were growing enormously in modern industrial strength and converting that strength into new military power. World War II was a bid for world domination by Germany and Japan, who were natural allies in their venture.
They succeeded in one respect. They brought Britain down as a superpower. But their bid aroused the concern of both the United States and Soviet Union. Both came into the war as allies, because both were challenged by the German-Japanese partners. Hitler and Tojo brought into existence a new world dominated, however, not by them but by the Soviet Union and the US.
And then, suddenly, Soviets and Americans looked at each other with only broken empires in between. Each was repelled by what it saw of the other. With no mutual enemies between them they feared each other, and thus the ``cold war'' came into being, and was bound to continue until there ceased to be a power vacuum in the spaces between.
That condition is now being fulfilled. What we have difficulty seeing and appreciating, simply because it is so new and so different, is that between the US and the Soviet Union in Asia is not only a new and economically powerful Japan, but also a new, unified, and economically growing China. The once power-wasteland of Japan's defeat and China's fragmentation has been refilled by a China which is already a formidable power associated with modern Japan.
And the once wasteland of Western Europe is moving now toward a new and prosperous unity. We are already in the early stages of a four-power world in which the US, Soviet Union, Western Europe, and China will each at best be one among equals - and as things are going now the Soviet Union will be the least modern and economically the weakest.
Has Moscow missed its chance of becoming top world power?
Almost certainly, yes.
It is too late now for it to overrun Western Europe. It is too late for it to knock out China's nuclear deterrent. It is too late for it to develop a stronger economy than the US. It has sunk back into being in many respects an underdeveloped third-world type power while Western Europe and China have surged forward.
And does Moscow know this?
Again the answer is probably, yes.
The new Kremlin leaders are intelligent enough to know that they are already living in a four-power world in which they cannot afford to be isolated and friendless. They cannot afford to be in a state of hostility with all the other three, and that is precisely the condition into which they were drifting under Leonid Brezhnev. This is a new world, and apparently the men in the Kremlin know it.