This is a season for stock taking all around. Moscow's Warsaw Pact leaders arrived in Poland Thursday to approve their treaty for a new 20-year period. And the Western allies meet in Bonn for their annual economic summit next week.
This happens as we pass historic milestones. The world we know today was born 40 years ago.
Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the meeting of victorious American and Soviet allies at the Elbe. It was an important marker of the end of an old world dominated by the power of Germany and Japan. The year 1945 launched a new world dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union.
The main feature of this new world's story has been the early coming apart of the wartime partnership between Washington and Moscow and then the rise of rival power groups, one revolving around Washington, the other around Moscow.
The NATO alliance was concluded in 1949, only four years after the US-Soviet meeting at the Elbe. The Soviets took longer to formalize their military system in the Warsaw Pact alliance of 1955. It gave Moscow's neighbors at least the appearance of having a voice in the affairs of their community.
Where do these power groupings stand today in relative cohesion, in relative strength, and in relative economic well being?
Beyond the shadow of a doubt Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin is bound to wish (if he has time to think about such things) that he might trade places with Ronald Reagan in the White House.
True, Mr. Reagan has his problems -- including a grievous one over his relations with his most important military ally, West Germany. To symbolize that relationship he had agreed to lay a wreath at a German war cemetery. He was put under a drum fire of political pressure at home to cancel that arrangement when it was learned that 47 of the some 2,000 graves in that cemetery contained the remains of SS men.
Reagan could not cancel the ceremony without offending his German allies. He cannot go ahead with it without offending US veterans and Jewish organizations, whose political support is important to Reagan's Republican Party which is beginning to think seriously about a midterm election coming up next year.
But this is bound to blow over. The Western alliance is founded on a mutuality of interest which can and will surmount this emotional issue. The alliance has held together for 36 years. Even the wisest statesmen at the time it was formed thought it might last some 10 years.
There will be problems to face next week in Bonn which will be more serious than the storm over wreath laying at a German cemetery. Washington will want help from its allies in trying to narrow the trade gap that has just made the United States a debtor nation for the first time since the beginning of World War I.
The others will be pressing him to push harder and faster than he has yet toward reducing the budget deficit (which helps keep interest rates and the dollar high) and toward new accommodations with the Soviets.
But there is no question about the durability of the alliance itself. It is held together by the twin facts of US military power and economic strength. The second is as important as the first. Probably the most important single event during the 40 years since the end of World War II is the emergence of the US economic system as being more productive and vigorous than the rival Soviet system.
By any standard of comparison, the US economy wins. It leads in the achievement of new technologies, in the production of quality goods, in distribution of those goods to the market. The whole world, including the communist countries themselves, is moving away from the Soviet system toward the American. Even the Soviets are studying both the US system, to understand better how and why it works, and the systems practiced in Eastern Europe where communism has been modified as far as Moscow will permit.
By contrast, at the Warsaw Pact meeting, Mr. Gorbachev faces allies, most of whom wish they were not part of the alliance and all of whom are yearning to hear him say that they will be permitted more independence in economic and political matters. They are being asked to renew the alliance for a second 20-year period. Several are believed to have been hoping to shorten the recommitment to 10 years.
Gorbachev's promise of April 6 to freeze the deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles is believed to have been aimed largely at his own allies and to have helped to persuade them to agree to the 20-year extension. He would reassure them even more if he could promise to loosen the Soviet economic system and follow some of them down the road which leads back to something nearer a marketplace price system.
The plain fact is that 40 years after World War II the Western world grouped around the US is enjoying the world's highest-ever standard of living, while the Soviet system plods ever farther behind.