There is no perfect laboratory for nations. If there were, smart leaders and peoples would long since have picked for themselves just the right combination from the smorgasbord of national experiments to build the ideal society: successful economic, educational, electoral, and legal systems, along with terms of office, leadership succession, taxation, social security, subsidies, etc. Then, if zealous, they could have concocted an ideology to explain what they had assembled.
But even without the perfect laboratory, the successes and failures of competing societies do loom into view. In the second half of this century, frequent comparisons have been made of:
(1) The superpowers and their allies.
(2) Free-market vs. socialist governments in the West.
(3) Newly independent third-world lands assimilating different systems.
(4) The three divided nations of Germany, Korea, and Vietnam.
Each of the latter trio has been in the news this week. It doesn't pay to overgeneralize, even about such nonidentical pairs of twins. But some lessons do emerge from events focusing attention on that trio. First, the events:
East German Communist Party and state leader Erich Honecker made his long-delayed visit to West Germany. The trip informally ratified acceptance by West German conservatives as well as socialists that inching forward in reality beats leaping forward in rhetoric. In short: practical steps to increase the flow of people and cash between the two nations accomplishes more than reunification slogans.
South Korea, not as far advanced as Bonn in relations with its communist sibling, is steering past some difficult student and labor collisions on its course from paternalism to political and economic democracy. A powerful reason for damping frictions between the ruling military and opposition leaders was the well-known desire of everybody not to forfeit the 1988 Olympic Games. Not incidentally, the games are scheduled to breach the rigid barricade between North and South Korea that has been far more impervious than the Berlin Wall.
Vietnam, last of the three to be divided and the only one to be reunited, inched forward in its stiff de facto relations with Washington.
It received three American specialists who will survey the need for private charitable aid to Vietnamese amputees and others crippled during or after the war. United States negotiators last month agreed to license such private aid and also to permit certain types of trade.
But Vietnam nevertheless seems to present a cautionary tale for the other still-divided twins. Since reunification a decade ago, things have not gone well for the inflexible victors of the long war with France and the US. Even now, both Washington and many younger Vietnamese wonder if Hanoi can extricate itself from the tar baby of Cambodia. It has promised to remove its 140,000 ``friendly'' occupation troops from there by 1990. It has incentive to do so.
The US and Hanoi's market-economy neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have made such a withrawal a condition for improving economic ties. Vietnam's economy needs such trade and aid.
Hanoi's occupation of Cambodia is also a thorn in Moscow's bid to improve ties with China. But even new-generation leaders coming to power in Hanoi seem reluctant to plan a pullout.
And little noticed, a fourth sibling pair, the ``two Chinas,'' are edging closer in an area pioneered by the two Germanys - family visits. Peking has encouraged such visits from Chinese who fled to Taiwan at the end of the Communist-Nationalist civil war. Now the Taiwan government has disclosed that it is considering legalizing such visits (which already take place by the tens of thousands) and might allow mainland Chinese to visit relatives in Taiwan.
What would King Solomon make of this activity among the modern world's divided babies? (Leavng out of the discussion such non-Solomonic offspring as Ireland-Northern Ireland, Cyprus, India-Pakistan-Bangladesh.) What does it tell us about their superpower mentors?
First, it is clear that West Germany and South Korea (and Taiwan) are among the world's leading economic success stories. Vietnam is near the bottom of the class. North Korea is little advanced. So was pre-Deng Xiaoping China. East Germany, while more industrially successful than other East-bloc states, lags behind much of the West.
In the imperfect laboratory of nations, North Korea and East Germany lacked the population and industrial bases of their twins. Vietnam lost (or forced out) many of its brightest, most industrious citizens at war's end. And neither Maoist China, East Germany, nor North Korea received the big capital infusions of US aid and Western trade that their wealthy brothers did.
But even so, the economic discrepancy is greater than the difference in starting point would explain. China's Deng Xiaoping and then Soviet leaders Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev clearly noted that discrepancy among their neighbors - as well as in Japan and the United States. And each has moved to hybridize his inherited system with technology and parts of the economic system from the other camp. Some in Hanoi are talking about emulating this.
East Germany remains the most advanced and fascinating example of shrinking sibling rivalry. Both Moscow and East Berlin obviously hope communist Germany will be a conduit and pacesetter for more new technology, trade, and Western loans for the Soviet bloc. But there is a risk in this strategy for Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Honecker's successors. It comes under the old heading of rising expectations. Germans moving more freely back and forth across the wall and imbibing the spirit of glasnost (``openness'') from Moscow may expect more than their leaders are willing to give.
So may their neighbors to the east and south. If ethnic nationalism is causing problems in Russia's inner empire, economic and political expectations may cause more in the outer empire.
Mr. Foell is editor in chief of The Monitor.