Two recent events give us the essential clue to what 1987 is likely to produce in world affairs. One event was a student riot in Alma-Ata, the capital of the Soviet ``autonomous'' republic of Kazakhstan, on Dec. 17 and 18.
The other is the net effect of the Iran-contra affair on President Reagan's powers in Washington. His freedom to initiate and execute policy is reduced.
Kazakhstan is not going to leave the Soviet orbit because of a two-day student riot. The rioting has been repressed. The instigators are lucky if they are only in jail. We can't know about their fate.
But rioting in Alma-Ata is symbolic of a broader condition in the Soviet Union. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has a lot of homework ahead - so much, and mostly on the economic front, that he is unlikely to have much time or energy for foreign ventures.
Public and political reaction in Washington to the Iran-contra affair has a similar effect there. The White House is being restructured on the insistence of the congressional leaders of Reagan's Republican Party. They are in unanimous agreement that there must not be any more affairs like the one we are going through now.
Frank Carlucci, a seasoned professional government staff man, has already been placed at the sensitive control point for foreign policy at the National Security Council. He will not allow new ventures in foreign policy without the explicit consent of both Secretary of State George Shultz and the Republican Party leaders on Capitol Hill. Hence, a repetition of such dramatic and radical ventures as selling guns to Iran is inconceivable from now on.
There will be further changes. The search is still under way for the ideal successor to Donald Regan as chief of staff to the President. The choice, so far as is known outside the White House, has not yet been made. It is expected to be announced at the time of the State of the Union message.
Also, the National Security Council is being purged of its operational capability. It is being cut back to its original role of gathering information for the President. This rules out the possibility of a policy being launched and executed from inside the White House without the knowledge and approval of the great main departments of government - State, Defense, and Treasury.
In other words, both Moscow and Washington will be playing passive and defensive rather than active and forward roles on the world stage in 1987, and probably in 1988 as well.
Foreign policy thinking in Washington today is markedly different from what it was during the early days of the Reagan administration. Back in those days, leading members of the Cabinet were talking about organizing a world economic boycott of the Soviet Union with the specific intention of bringing down the regime. United States military power was to be built up to a ``war winning'' capability. Cuba would be invaded.
Those early Reaganauts not only dreamed of but actually launched forward strategies looking toward a major confrontation with the Soviet Union which some of them expected would lead to actual war.
Go to Washington now and hunt for a trace of that kind of thinking and talking. You will find a few mild echoes in the rhetoric of White House speech writer Patrick Buchanan and ex-UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. But you will not find residue of it in the thinking of the real power centers of today's Washington.
On the other side of the power divide is Mikhail Gorbachev, who recognizes that his country lags far behind in the march toward modernism. China is still far behind the Soviet Union in modern amenities and living standards, but it is moving ahead at a pace perhaps too fast to be maintained. Will the Soviet Union progress at half-time and sink back into a second-rate economy, incapable of supporting a first-rate military posture while China moves ahead?
These conditions of the superpowers mean that the main news on the world stage in 1987 will be made by local and regional activities, not by the initiatives of the two great powers. There will be plenty of local action. Tension is building up again between whites and blacks in South Africa. The war between Iran and Iraq goes on. Shiite Muslims and Palestinians are battling for turf in Lebanon. Protestants and Roman Catholics are as actively hostile in Northern Ireland as ever.
There is always the Middle East - where the search for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement has virtually been abandoned, but tensions have not abated. Arab demonstrations against Israeli power are almost daily occurrences on the West Bank and in Gaza. Israel is beginning to try to think through the consequences of the existing situation, with no consensus yet visible.
Does Israel proceed to annex the occupied territories? If it does, it will find itself having to grant citizenship and the vote to the Arabs. The Arab bloc in parliament will grow as the Arab population grows, while the Jewish population remains stable or declines. By that road, Israel will someday become an Arab country.
Israel must do a lot of hard thinking about its future. But nothing is likely to happen in 1987 other than continued friction between Arabs and Israeli police. Neither Washington nor Moscow is in any condition to launch a major peace plan.
In short, we can expect a relatively quiet 1987 on the world stage.