In world affairs, 1988 has been one of those rare years which can actually be said to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. It is in every sense a watershed year - the end of a two-power world and the beginning of a multipower world. It is not so much that the cold war is over. It is rather that the conditions that bred it have given way to new conditions in which the ``superpowers'' are ceasing to be super powers.
The key to the great changes of 1988 was provided early. On Jan. 6, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze told the people of Afghanistan that: ``We would like the year 1988 to be the last year of the presence of Soviet troops in your country.''
They are not all out yet; but the remainder are expected to leave shortly. Perhaps as important as the announcement of the withdrawal was a clear indication in Mr. Shevardnadze's June 6 press conference that it was not contingent on guarantees for survival of the Najibullah puppet regime. The Afghan regime has to take its chances for survival on its own resources, just as did the US-backed regime in Vietnam when the last American troops went home.
It is generally assumed that, sooner or later, the Najibullah regime will fall. Moscow has accepted the realities of its own loss of influence in Afghanistan, just as the US finally had to do in Vietnam.
The two superpowers achieved a new equality in 1988. By year's end, both had come to recognize limits on the range of their physical power. Both had experienced humiliating failures in foreign policy.
The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was only the beginning of other withdrawals. During the year, Moscow reduced its deployment along the Chinese frontier, reduced the number of its troops in Mongolia, persuaded the Vietnamese to begin a pullback of forces from Cambodia, refused to give the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua the fighter planes and other offensive weapons which Daniel Ortega had been asking for for years. And papers have finally been signed calling for a withdrawal of Cuban and South African troops from Angola.
I can't find in history an example of a great imperial power deliberately contracting its empire by so much within the span of a single year. The downfall of the Roman Empire took place from outside forces over a period of nearly 1,000 years. The British Empire was dissolved gradually over a period of some 40 years. The first big contraction was the granting of independence to India in 1947. Most of the rest has since gone. Remnants include Hong Kong, gradually being transfered to China.
Now, in the span of a single year, the Soviet Union has become recessive in Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, Africa, and (just a little) in the Americas.
The change in behavior on the ground has reflected a change in attitude toward the outside world. From the end of World War II through the reign of Leonid Brezhnev, Moscow conducted its foreign policy on the ideological assumption that all capitalist powers were hostile to the ``Socialist'' world, and that between the two there must always be a condition of hostility.
That framework had become frayed by the end of the Brezhnev years. Many a Soviet official behaved in private as though ideology was no more than a pose. Yet Moscow's behavior was still phrased in terms of the assumption that ``Socialist'' countries are moral, while ``capitalist'' countries are immoral and hostile.
During 1988, Moscow neither talked nor acted within that old ideological framework. Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting around the capitalist world just as though such governments were neither more nor less moral than ``Socialist'' ones. He visited Washington as though he and Ronald Reagan were fellow members of the club of heads of government, no longer emissaries from hostile camps parlaying under a flag of truce.
In 1988, the Soviet Union abandoned its isolationism born of the Stalin era and sought to become, and in many ways actually did, a member of the family of nations.
First of two articles. Next: How long this may last.