World affairs during 1981 are bound to be influenced heavily by two main features of these times. The first of these is that we are well into the time of peak Soviet military power vis-a-vis the West.
The second is that we are also into the time when the concept of "national liberation" is becoming more of a liability to the Soviet Union and more of an asset to the West.
The interplay of these two conditions -- high Soviet military power but vulnerability to the human desire for independence -- will largely determine how much strain, tension, danger, and excitement there will be during the new year.
It will be particularly interesting to see how the new administration in Washington will adjust and adapt US policy toward these two conditions. That, of course, will depend to some extent on whether the Soviet Union is bold or cautious in using its military strength to achieve its purpose.
For the West one of the more encouraging signs of the times is that Moscow is suffering right now from the unfavorable side effects of having used its military power boldly during 1980. Looking back over the recent past we can see that sometime during late 1979 the leaders in the Kremlin must have decided on a "forward" stragety to take advantage of their emerging military power. So they invaded afghanistan. And now they parade their military might around Poland.
But what good has this done them? On balance, they are more feared, more distrusted, more shunned than before the Afghan invasion.
Have they drawn any lesson from that?
Perhaps. At least, they have not rattled their guns and tanks at Iran. Nor have they pursued an active "forward" strategy against Pakistan.
Perhaps they hope someday to push on south from Afghanistan and build a warmwater seaport for themselves on the Indian Ocean. But they would have to pacify the Afghans first. And that pacification seems to be eluding them just as pacification of Vietnam eluded the United States for so long.
In many ways the world situation at the beginning of 1981 is a reversal of conditions that existed in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson decided on a forward strategy in Vietnam to take advantage of superior US military power. At that time national liberation movements were largely at the expense of the US and its allies. But the advantage in military power was strongly with the US.
Since 1965 both of those conditions have been reversed. I can think of only two places in the world where it can be contended that the US and its friends and allies are holding back peoples from independence. One is South Africa, where the black majority is still under dominant white rule. Western trade and investment help prop up that regime. The other is Palestine, where Israelis hold West Bank and Gaza Arabs under military subjection. The US subsidizes Israel.
Other than South Africa and Palestine, is there a country still yearning for independence from colonial or imperial masters?
Yes, inside the Soviet empire.
The old Western empires are all gone. The British, French, Austrian, Spanish , Portuguese, German, and Danish empires all belong to history. But the peoples of Eastern Europe would like to regain the independence they all enjoyed between World War I and II. The people of the former Baltic republics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) look with envy across the Baltic toward the Finns and Scandinavians. The Turkomans and the Uzbeks, the Kurds and the Mongols, must all be indulging at times in what the Kremlin would consider to be subversive thoughts about getting out from under Russian dominance over their lives.
There can be no doubt about how the Poles think and feel.
Moscow's span of comparative military strength usually is estimated to last into 1984, but which time pending Western military programs should improve the Western military programs should improve the Western side in the balance of military power. The greatest single danger to the peace of the world arises from the possibility that the Soviets will be tempted to use that power edge again while they still have it.
The peace in 1981 depends heavily on whether the Soviets already have learned the lesson the US learned in Vietnam, or whether they will be inclined to repeat the Afghan venture in other places.
The lack of other instruments of world influence tends to drive the Soviets toward the use of military power. Their economy is so backward and stagnant that they have little in the way of trade and aid to offer to outside countries.
Communism was once an advantage to them, but it has become bankrupt as a cement for alliances. Two communist countries -- China and Albania -- are in a state of hostility toward the Soviet Union. Even a number of communist parties openly repudiated the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the threat to use force against Poland.
During the Napoleonic wars, Britain was always inferior to France in raw military power. Even in sea power the French built more and better ships. On land Napoleon vastly outnumbered the British in manpower and numbers and quality of guns. But the British won out in the end because they were able to put together a series of alliances that ultimately ended Napoleon's dominance over Europe.
the contest during 1981 will be more of what we experienced in 1980 -- a contest between the alliance strategy of the West against the forward military strategy of Moscow. Much depends, of course, on how skillfully the West uses its alliance strategy. The biggest danger probably is that the West might provoke power while they still have it.