WHEN Presidents Bush and Gorbachev meet in Helsinki at the end of this week they will be confronted by a new and different world. It is a world with a new order since their last summit meeting in Washington in June. It is a world no longer dominated by their bipolar relationship.
It is a world in which there has been considerable diffusion of power from Washington and Moscow.
True, the United States and the Soviet Union between them control overpowering military might. But as the predictable cold war has ebbed away, the world has entered a more volatile phase.
It is a phase in which regional crises can explode where the superpowers have little influence. Who would have thought, a little more than a month ago, that the upcoming summit would be dominated by the actions of a relatively inconsequential country like Iraq, and the posturings of a third-rank leader like Saddam Hussein?
Now, the superpowers cannot order the world to their liking.
The Soviets have lost the cold war and their stomach for worldwide arm-twisting. The ideology of Marx and Lenin is in retreat. The United States has learned the necessity to work with international agencies and within alliances. In Grenada and Panama it could go it alone. In the Gulf crisis it has been careful to work under the mantle of the United Nations and with other cooperating countries.
What is strikingly different in the behavior of the superpowers during the Iraq crisis, compared to previous flare-ups, is the way they have worked together to defuse it. The unity of Americans and Soviets in deploring Iraq's seizure of Kuwait has done much to fashion international support for the economic blockade of Iraq. It has stiffened the resolve of Arab nations who have spoken out against Saddam Hussein.
It is this Soviet cooperation that Mr. Bush will be seeking to strengthen at the Helsinki summit. Any dilution of the Soviet position would encourage some countries to reconsider their participation in the blockade.
But there is mutual interest in holding together on Iraq. Mr. Bush recognizes that Soviet support is essential if his blockading force is to remain in place. Mr. Gorbachev does not want a war in the Middle East, and disruption of oil supplies to the West; he knows that the fate of his own economy is dependent on the well-being of the American economy.
If the extent of US-Soviet cooperation is so far remarkable, so too is the extent to which the Iraq crisis has overshadowed other dramatic events in the world. It is a reminder that the stakes in the Middle East are very high.
There have been major developments in the Soviet Union, South Africa and Germany during recent days. Without Iraq, any one of these could have been the main story of the day. Instead, they have been overtaken by the latest on American troop deployments in Saudi Arabia, or the daily exchange of comments between George Bush and Saddam Hussein.
Less than a year after the Berlin wall was breached, the two Germanys are heading for reunification in November. The economic merger of the two Germanys has already taken place. The pace of all this is astonishing. Divided for long years, the two countries now will constitute a powerful new force in Europe. The extraction of East Germany from communism's embrace is of course welcome. It remains to be seen how a reunited Germanys will integrate with other West European countries, countries where there are long memories of German militarism in two world wars.
In South Africa there has been another remarkable development. President Frederik de Klerk, who has been a strong and surprising force for racial reform, wants his ruling National Party to open its ranks to black members. The National Party is the stronghold of the white Afrikaners who have long favored apartheid, or racial segregation. If the party opens its ranks, no headlong rush of non-whites to membership is expected. But it is another striking indication that Mr. De Klerk is setting his party against racism and racial discrimination and this too, without Iraq, would have been one of the major stories of the day.
Finally, the Soviet Union has apparently agreed on a plan to dismantle central economic controls and move to free markets. Private ownership would be expanded. There would be a banking system and stock markets. The plan would give the Soviet Union's constituent republics almost total economic autonomy. If all this takes place it would bring sweeping change to a country whose economy has become moribund under the stifling pall of Marxism-Leninism.
All this has receded into the background as Iraq has dominated the headlines and preoccupied the superpowers. It is a sign of changing order and changing priorities in a world no longer dominated by the cold war.