Tiptoeing through Europe

AS President Bush padded through Eastern Europe this week, distributing baseball mitts, and talking up American democracy, there were a number of hero-figures he could have quoted from - any of the Churchillian or Jeffersonian figures of the West who bade men sacrifice for freedom. Instead he looked to an unusual source for inspiration.

In a speech in Poland he quoted these words: ``Universal security rests on the recognition of the right of every nation to choose its own path of social development and on the renunciation of interference in the domestic affairs of other states. A nation may choose either capitalism or socialism. This is its sovereign right.''

The speaker from whom George Bush was quoting was no other than Mikhail Gorbachev, presider over change in the Soviet Union, chieftain of an uneasy and crumbling Soviet empire, and a man whose ambitions present the West with both opportunity and challenge.

A lot has been written about the competition between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev as they tour each other's back yards in Europe, seeking to win the hearts and minds of the people. West Germans cheer ``Gorby'' with all the enthusiasm reserved for a popular rock star. In Poland, Bush would beat Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski in any head-to-head election.

But Bush's cautious progression through Eastern Europe, his accent on gentle change rather than bomb-throwing revolution, his reiteration of Gorbachev's declared ideals, marks the emergence of a new relationship between the two men - a subtle partnership.

It is not a partnership born of sentiment or strong personal feeling. Indeed, if anything Bush has seemed a little more skeptical about Gorbachev than was the effusive President Reagan.

It is a partnership based on reality, reality as perceived by Bush and his advisers.

The reality is that the hopes of Eastern Europe are rising at a time when the influence of the West is declining. America is in no position to send its troops to the rescue of people who live in Eastern Europe's still-communist satellites of Moscow. Nor is the United States single-handedly able to wave a magic wand and transform their economies by infusions of economic aid. That is why Bush's economic proposals have been modest, smacking more of symbolism than substance.

When it sees signs of movement in a democratic direction, the United States will help but it cannot alone solve the problems of countries overtaken by the failure of communism.

Another reality is that the pace and course of change will be determined just as much in Moscow as in Washington. Gorbachev may not be able to totally control Eastern Europe's evolution, but he can be obstructive or supportive as mood and politics dictate. The USSR still has formidable military capacity to bring an errant satellite government to heel if it chooses. If Moscow tells its tanks to roll, we could yet have the kind of explosion in Eastern Europe that a Bush administration does not wish for.

Careful evolution rather than violent revolution is what a cautious Bush would like to see. China, which he knows well, is a sobering example of a communist country whose ruling regime can revert to brutal repression when challenged by freedom's call.

Gorbachev is unlikely to be toppled by a coup from the left. But a coup from the right could, as Washington sees it, undo the evolution that is taking place in Eastern Europe, and set back the regional cooperation the US is getting from the USSR in such areas as Angola, perhaps in Cuba, and ultimately in Nicaragua.

The world may be a little safer than it was, but it is a world unsettled and uncertain. The Bush administration seems to have decided that, for the moment, working with Gorbachev is the best prospect for stability.

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