The cost of empires

The cost of sending a British naval force to the South Atlantic is more, by far, than the United Kingdom treasury in London could ever hope to get from the Falkland Islands even if British sovereignty there were to exist unchallenged for the next century.

The British are headed down there to sustain a public principle. Highway robbery is wrong and should not be tolerated. But they are not going there to make money out of a colony. Any sheepherder can tell you how little profit for government there is in that pastoral and perhaps romantic but never more than marginally rewarding activity.

And it is no secret that the British will divest themselves of the cost and responsibility of their sovereignty over the Falkland Islands just as soon as they can do so decently and without encouraging would-be burglars of other people's property to think that anything goes. The British want out from the Falklands just as they have wanted out from so many other no longer profitable colonies and properties around the world.

Old-style empires are no longer a paying proposition. Once, they were. The British Empire of the 18th and 19th centuries was at times highly profitable for the government and people of the imperial center. It provided a vast market for the factories of Britain and a source of cheap raw materials for those same factories. It also provided jobs and economic opportunity for many thousands of British people.

Times change. I was born into a world dominated by the British Empire. How much is left? The change was not forced by military defeat nor even, in most cases, by local nationalism. The moving force behind the dissolution of the British Empire was the Treasury, in London. Most colonies were costing the mother country more than they returned in revenue.

There are exceptions. Hong Kong is one. However, Hong Kong remains profitable at the consent of China. If China wanted to take it, China would. Britain could not afford the cost of defending Hong Kong against China. In effect, Hong Kong is defended by Chinese tolerance. It pays China to have Hong Kong as a channel to the trade of the outside world.

At the Kremlin in Moscow the leaders of the Soviet state are beginning to find out that they too are subject to the factors which caused the British to take themselves out of the empire business.

In this newspaper last week our East European correspondent, Eric Bourne, reported that since last summer Moscow has had to pump $1.2 billion into Poland just to help Poland meet the service charges on its debts to the outside world. He estimates that the other members of Moscow's ''system'' in Eastern Europe have contributed $750 million to Poland's debt service.

In addition Moscow and the others have shipped into Poland large quantities of machinery, spare parts, farm equipment and food to keep Poland from plunging into bankruptcy.

In the early days after World War II Moscow did well from its conquests. In East Germany and Manchuria, for example, the Soviets piled the machinery of whole factories on trains and sent it all back to the Soviet Union. Moscow simply looted the countries its armies overran regardless of whether the people were friendly to their ''liberators.'' The looting of Manchuria was one reason why the Chinese came to think of the Soviets as exploiters rather than as helpful friends and allies.

The Soviets can no longer afford to exploit a country like Poland. They must keep Poland going to protect the supply lines to their troops in East Germany. They can't afford food riots in Poland or a total economic breakdown.

They do get something back in return for what they are spending on Poland, but what are they getting back for what they are spending now on Vietnam? The latest figure on that is $1 billion for economic aid alone, not counting military aid. The total by some estimates is $1.2 billion. Add that Cuba is costing them an estimated $7 million per day, or over $2.5 billion a year. In return they get the use of Fidel Castro's soldiers in Angola and Ethiopia, Cuba's vote on many issues at the United Nations, and some prestige.

But when you add up the sums Moscow is spending on its empire, you know that the cost is beginning to become burdensome. You can also assume that the same reasons which put the British Treasury behind the liquidation of the British Empire must be beginning to occur to the minds of the experts in the Soviet treasury department in Moscow.

We can only guess how long it will be before those reasons will begin to influence Soviet imperial policy. That they will is axiomatic. Empires today cost more than they return to the imperial center.

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