Is the course of world politics altered by the health of the man at the top of the Kremlin hierarchy? Once again, that question has been thrust to the fore by the unexplained absence from public view of a Soviet leader.
Konstantin Chernenko dropped from sight in late December 1984. Since then, he has missed public appearances, and important meetings that he was to have attended have been canceled. Privately, Soviet officials have said that Mr. Chernenko is ailing and unable to perform some of the duties of office.
It is a pattern that is all too familiar. It was followed in 1983 and 1984 during the lingering illness of former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, who died in February of last year. The pattern had been set during the physical decline of Leonid Brezhnev, who died in 1982.
Chernenko has dropped out of sight at least twice before, without explanation, but each time he has reappeared looking fit.
But a sudden reappearance this time is unlikely to end concern over his health. It would only allay it temporarily.
Nor will it provide answers to some fundamental questions being asked about the Soviet political system. Among them: Does the state of a Soviet leader's health effect this country's internal and external policies? And does the transfer of leadership to a younger generation hold out the prospect of fundamental changes in those policies?
In the Soviet Union, where political influence substitutes for popular appeal, and policy is the result of party consensus rather than public debate, those questions are particularly hard to answer.
As a Western diplomat says, ``It's a very inaccessible group of people'' that wields power in the Soviet Union.
Still, some analysts here say there is substantial evidence that a Soviet leader's health does influence political decisionmaking. And the accession to power, decline, and death of Yuri Andropov -- telescoped into less than two years -- offers perhaps the most compelling evidence.
``We have seen a definite impact internally from uncertainty at the top'' during the Andropov era, says a Western diplomat. Mr. Andropov, the diplomat adds, ``did have plans that slowly petered out as he went into a decline.''
Western Kremlin-watchers say that during periods of uncertainty over leadership, the Kremlin tends to cling to the status quo. Both older and younger generations among the Soviet leadership seem to have an incentive for doing so, albeit for different reasons.
One diplomat explains that the older Kremlin generation (roughly, those seven of the 11 full members who are over age 65) views the status quo as a reaffirmation of its own continuing grip on power. The younger generation, by contrast, does not wish to be saddled by decisions made now that could limit its own exercise of power in the future.
As another diplomat explains it, there is ``a disinclination to tackle major problems -- particularly in foreign policy. Things are left on hold.''
And, the diplomat continues, there is now ``more of a feeling that things are on hold. There are no innovative solutions nor, indeed, energetic debate.''
While that could be the result of Chernenko's fading health, it could also simply be his singular inability to excite or motivate the creaking Soviet bureaucracy.
``He's not somebody who's giving signals that encourage the scholars and experts to look at new and innovative solutions.''
Significantly, there is in practice no fixed term in office for a Communist Party general secretary. Four out of six Soviet leaders have held the post for life. The two exceptions are Georgi Malenkov, who was forced to yield the top party post to Nikita Khrushchev after only weeks in office, and Mr. Khru-shchev himself, who was uncere-moniously replaced by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964. Many observers say there is no evidence that policy has changed.
``I don't see any departure from the practice of letting the leader die in office,'' is the blunt assessment of one Western diplomat.
The recent problem of leadership uncertainty has been compounded because the Kremlin's older generation has insisted on choosing one of its own in each of the last two successions. Chernenko was 72 when chosen as general secretary, Andropov 68. (Western experts calculate male life expectancy in the Soviet Union at 63.)
Because a political system so dependent on a single leader can falter when he falters, the Soviets have sought to spread decisionmaking power throughout the ruling Politburo.
``Our policies,'' says one Soviet official, ``are collective policies. They do not depend on a single leader.''
That was particularly evident, says another diplomat, as the Soviets decided to reopen arms control negotiations with the United States.
``They've been very careful,'' the diplomat says, ``to make it crystal clear that these are collective decisions, for which the Politburo bears collective responsibility.''
Collective decisionmaking may prevent radical shifts in Kremlin policy, but each new leader nonetheless brings different emphases to the office. Mr. Brezhnev, for example, is generally regarded as having been more ideologically conservative than was Khrushchev. He overturned some of Khrushchev's policies.
Andropov, by contrast, came in apparently set to reform a political system grown indolent and corrupt during Brezhnev's long tenure.
Chernenko was apparently chosen because he would offer no surprises to the older generation that still controls the Politburo. Since he followed closely in Brezhnev's train, it is thought that he represented a ``safe'' choice.
Nevertheless, the diplomat continues, there has been a conscious effort to ``build Chernenko up'' in the minds of the Soviet and world public.
The leader's importance will loom even larger, he predicts, as the 27th congress of the Soviet Communist Party approaches. It is scheduled for the spring of 1986, but unconfirmed reports suggest it could take place as early as this fall.
A Soviet party congress takes on all the importance of American party political conventions, elections, and inaugurations rolled into one event. If a leader is ailing, uninspiring, or both, it will be painfully obvious at the party congress.
``I think there are a lot of people who would be awfully disappointed to see Chernenko leading it. It would be an admission,'' the diplomat says, ``that the party is paralyzed.''
Even when Chernenko eventually leaves the political scene, there is no preset succession mechanism to follow. A new party leader is chosen only when the previous one dies or leaves office.
Chernenko's apparent ill health, then, only focuses more attention on likely successors.
If the past is a guide, there are two prerequisites for any contender to Soviet leadership. One is a position on the party's Secretariat (permanent staff of secretaries, heading specific departments), the other is Poliburo membership.
The leader will, incidentally, almost certainly be male, since there are no women either on the Politburo or Secretariat, and no women of consequence on the Soviet political scene.
Currently only two men -- 61-year-old Grigory Romanov and 53-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev -- have both qualifications. Of these two, Mr. Gorbachev is considered the front-runner, largely because he is already acting as the No. 2 man in the Kremlin hierarchy.
Both men have their liabilities. Mr. Romanov has a reputation as an abrasive, imperious ``hard-liner.'' Gorbachev's status as the youngest member of the Politburo might, in some countries, be considered a plus. In this one, however, he may be considered too young to rise to the top of the political heap.
Gorbachev's youth apparently counted against him in the last election of a general secretary. Although he was believed to be former Soviet leader Andropov's choice as his successor, Gorbachev lost out to Chernenko. And many sources, both Soviet and Western, suggest his relatively young age was the decisive factor.
Some analysts say that could be the case again if another succession takes place soon. A few do not rule out the possibility that another older member of the Politburo, such as 70-year-old Moscow party chief Viktor Grishin, could succeed Chernenko.
However, with the passage of time and the death of older members (such as that of Dmitri Ustinov, the former defense minister, last December) the balance of power seems to shift in favor of a younger Soviet leader taking power.
``It's probably too easy a scenario to have the young guys pitted against the old. That overlooks a lot of crosscutting pressures,'' one Western diplomat says. Nevertheless, he says, ``This next time [of succession], I think the [position of] general secretary will go to a new generation of Soviet leaders -- most probably to Gorbachev.''
``Particularly in matters of style, rather than substance, the change could be fairly dramatic,'' the diplomat says. After all, he notes, if Gorbachev should take over, the Soviet Union would quickly go ``from having one of the weakest, frailest leaders to having one of the youngest'' -- in its own history, and in comparison to the US and West European countries as well.
``It could certainly burnish the image of Soviet policy [and] shed the perception of stasis here.''
But another diplomat points out, ``The general secretary is not the party'' -- and there are limits as to how far any new Soviet leader can expect the party to follow him. For one thing, this diplomat notes, ``The old guard will still be around.''
Another notes, ``There's all sorts of institutional drag in this system.''
``Political power has to be built here, just as in any other political system,'' the diplomat continues. ``It has to be done slowly and painstakingly. It can't be done overnight.''
Indeed, one Soviet observer says the process of building support within the party and filling key staff positions with one's own supporters takes a new Soviet leader a minimum of five years.
Other constraints, says a Western diplomat, include ``the legacy of decisions that he would inherit from his predecessor'' -- as, for example, ``the material and psychological investment that the Soviets have put into Afghanistan.''
In addition, there are what might be called ``geopolitical'' constraints on a Soviet leader -- the need to keep this country's East European satellites in line, to worry about political and military developments in Western Europe and NATO, and to keep an eye on American alliances with China and Japan to the east.
Nor is there any indication, even if Gorbachev should become the new Soviet leader, that he would want to make radical changes to the Soviet political and economic system. He is, after all, a successful product of that system.
As one diplomat says, ``He's definitely out of the party mold.''
While Gorbachev is ``far more geared toward examining innovative policies,'' the diplomat adds, ``There are very definite limits on how far he would go.''
Another diplomat says, for example, that the Soviet Union under Gorbachev would be unlikely to adopt the sort of radical economic reforms now under way in China.
``There is,'' the diplomat says laconically, ``no Soviet Deng Xiaoping,'' referring to the iconoclastic Chinese leader.
And the same may be true of forging new links with the US.
``Nobody in the Soviet leadership is going to stick their neck out too far'' to make concessions to the US, the diplomat adds. ``By their lights, they've been burned too much in the past.''
Still, Mikhail Gorbachev does appear to have more warmth and style than many Soviet politicians. During a successful visit to Britain last December, he was likened to a Soviet-style John F. Kennedy.
The comparison is, of course, debatable. But even if it were true, some analysts do not necessarily see it as a positive thing. They caution that a young, somewhat more innovative and persuasive Soviet leader may end up as a formidable adversary to the West.
One notes that Gorbachev probably has ``similar, if not identical views'' of the USSR's security interests as the Soviet leaders who came before him. And those have rarely coincided with the West's.
``When all the smoke does clear [after a transition], paradoxically, we may find ourselves in an even more competitive position,'' the diplomat adds. ``What we may find is that we're dealing with a group of leaders that can be much more effective than a doddering old clique.''
``It's not that they're going to change policy,'' he says, ``it's just that they're going to be better able to do what the Soviet Union has wanted to do all along.'' Series: Great Decisions 1. Revolutionary Cuba
Toward accommodation or conflict? 2. Soviet leadership in transition
What impact on superpower relations? 3. Iran-Iraq war
What role for the US in Persian Gulf? 4. Budget deficit, trade, and the dollar
The economics of foreign policy 5. The Philippines
What future for democracy? 6. Population growth
Critical North-South issue? 7. Future of the Atlantic alliance
Unity in diversity? 8. Intelligence operations
How undercover diplomacy works
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