The United States is in a state of gradual economic decline; by the turn of the century other capitalist ``power centers'' will have outstripped it economically and will be less willing to accept Washington's political leadership. This is the analysis of Alexander Yakovlev, a member of the Communist Party Secretariat and the closest adviser to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. His article, in the latest issue of the theoretical journal Kommunist, appears to be an argument for a break with the traditional US-oriented foreign policy, and its replacement with a multipolar approach to the Western world.
Although Soviet officials continue to stress the possibility of an arms agreement with the Reagan administration, Mr. Yakovlev seems to have given up hope of this: In one aside, he notes that Washington is intent upon ``intensifying military-political pressure'' on the Soviet Union and its allies.
The article also provides a useful glimpse of the Soviet leadership's long-term view of the world. While Washington is planning for the 1988 elections, the Kremlin is planning for the turn of the century and beyond. By the year 2000 - when he will be 69, six years younger than President Reagan is now - Mr. Gorbachev envisages a technologically modern Soviet Union that will be able to compete with the West on an even footing.
The long awaited Soviet economic takeoff, Yakovlev clearly believes, will be matched by the loss of momentum of US capitalism. And growing rivalry among the developed noncommunist nations will hamper any efforts to build a united front against the communist world.
The US decline will be undramatic, Yakovlev believes, and the tensions within the Western world will probably not lead to military conflict. At the beginning of the next century, Yakovlev cautions, the US will still be a major force with which to contend. He cites Western sources, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as predicting that the US ``will remain the main capitalist power in political and military terms,'' but will cease to be the unconditional center of the ``capitalist'' world.
Yakovlev foresees a ``splintering'' of the West as the economic strength of a number of ``power centers'' first reaches, then overtakes, that of the US. The most important of these centers will be Japan and the European Community. Other new ``capitalist'' forces will, however, be on the rise, Yakovlev says. These include Canada (where Yakovlev served as Ambassador from 1973 to '83), Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. Gorbachev is expected to visit Latin America sometime next year.
Despite these changes, Yakovlev believes the US will try to hold on to its role as world leader. This, he says, will only aggravate the tensions among Western nations. The US, Yakovlev obviously feels, is a declining but still-dangerous adversary.
He sees US policy as essentially backward looking: The present political leadership is nostalgic for the state of affairs that prevailed at the end of World War II, when US political and economic leadership was unchallenged.
The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or ``star wars'' ) is one example of this retrospective policy, Yakovlev says. It is basically a new form of the containment doctrine formulated in 1947. SDI, he says, is intended to restore US military superiority over the Soviet Union, and SDI, like containment before it, aims to undermine the Soviet economy.
Containment failed to achieve this, Yakovlev claims.
But he adds in a comment that could also apply to the present day, the additional defense expenditures forced on the Soviet Union by containment did affect the speed with which the government could improve living standards.
The logic of Yakovlev's article sometimes depends on a leap of faith - notably in its assumption that a technologically advanced communist world will not itself develop competing economic power centers.