Those unpopular super powers

This has been the week when the new American President, beset at home by economic problems, went to Cancun in Mexico to meet representatives of a number of less affluent countries to try to explain to them why he is in no mood to open the American treasury to them.

It was also a week during which the Greeks voted into office a new nationalist, and also Socialist, government which enjoys saying rude things about the United States and its NATO alliance and loves to talk big about asserting its future ''independence.'' The event again exposed the current popularity of the anti-American line. It is more or less endemic through Western Europe these days.

This unpopularity is just another symptom of the declining prestige and influence of the two superpowers. Fortunately for the US, Moscow has equal or, some think, even more serious problems of managing its own sphere of influence. During the past week the Soviets watched, one presumes with crossed fingers, while the Polish communist party dumped its most recent leader, Stanislaw Kania, and replaced him by Polish Army Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, who already held the posts of prime minister and defense minister.

Hope must be lively in Moscow that a strong soldier will be able to restore some political and economic stability to Poland. Such an achievement would spare Moscow having to take steps that might further strain its own well-stretched economic system.

Mr. Reagan's Washington is no more inclined to play the role of Lady Bountiful to the poor of the world than is Moscow. One measure of the Cancun meeting is that while the President went there preaching the doctrine of ''self-reliance,'' there continues to languish in the mills of Congress a foreign aid budget remarkable for its slimness and remarkable also for its unpopularity among legislators.

This modest US foreign aid program is being held up in committee in the Democratically controlled House, pending assurance that the White House will deliver enough Republican votes to make it worthwhile sending the bill to the floor of the House. So far the Republican White House has been too busy with other matters to do any lobbying for the foreign aid bill. Committee staff members doubt that it will get to the floor. Foreign aid may be continued by one of those resolutions that allows money to be spent in terms of previous legislation.

Those who, like this writer, remember the immediate postwar world find it difficult to adjust to the changes. Greece at the close of World War II was torn by a civil war. American aid beat back the communist insurgents, saved the government, and laid the foundation for a prosperous modern Greece. The same Greece today seems to be bored by its present easy life. The new generation wants change.

Well, it is going to get at least the rhetoric of some change, although friends and observers doubt that the new President, Andreas Papandreou, will actually want to implement his campaign rhetoric.

If he did in office all the things he talked about doing during the campaign, we would have to expect to see Greece pull out of the NATO alliance, pull out of the European Community, declare its ''independence'' of anyone and everyone outside Greece, and nationalize practically everything in Greece. It sounded exciting to younger voters in Greece during the campaign. It won Mr. Papandreou a lot of votes.

But Mr. Papandreou practiced the art of politics first in the US when he worked for a time on the staff of Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. He taught political science in American universities. He is aware that the art of getting elected and the art of governing are two different things. He knows from experience that a statesman in office will rise above his own pre-election campaign promises if he is to be effective in government.

Greece is not out of the alliance yet, and probably will not go out under Mr. Papandreou. But being anti-American is the attitude popular right now with the ''bright young things'' in Western Europe, just as being anti-Soviet is the smart thing in the countries still dominated by the shadow of the Soviet armed forces.

The Soviet Union and the Soviet imperial system have become almost an irrelevance inside Poland. The problem there is to find the man who can reconcile the government with the trade unions in a manner that might head Poland back on the road to economic health. It is not easy to unify and coordinate the Polish nation. It was done once under Marshal Pilsudski. Perhaps a general whose association is with the Army first, and now takes over control of the party as well, may once more be the answer to Poland's needs.

Moscow would welcome such a stabilizing event on its Western frontier. Just as US foreign aid goes mostly to Israel and Egypt for special reasons, over 90 percent of Soviet foreign aid goes to Cuba and Vietnam for equally special reasons. And the Soviet capacity to provide aid seems to be even more severely limited than is the American.

The men in the Kremlin must have been particularly grateful in view of their problems that the White House in Washington handed them two superb pieces of propaganda ammunition over the past week. There was the case of General Schweitzer of the White House staff who had said in an unauthorized speech that the Soviets ''are on the move'' and are ''going to strike.'' And there was the case of the President of the US himself who said that:

''I could see where you could have the exchange of tactical weapons against troops in the field without it bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button.''

The White House general who saw war on his horizon was promptly fired from the White House. The President's remark was explained away by all administration spokesmen as not meaning what it was promptly taken to mean in Europe.

But the Soviet propaganda apparatus seized on the two incidents with glee and used them to add more touches to the picture it is painting of an Uncle Sam brandishing weapons, preparing for war, and dreaming of a proxy nuclear war in Europe for Europeans with the US sitting it out safely.

The Soviets completed their propaganda picture by having Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow declare that '' . . . only he who has decided to commit suicide can start a nuclear war.''

The week brought a report that the President is dissatisfied with present White House arrangements for handling foreign policy and is thinking of improvements.

One urgently needed improvement would be the avoidance of careless remarks that play into Moscow's propaganda hands.

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