MOSCOW is at last buying into the global political and economic system created after World War II. And Washington doesn't seem well prepared to answer the chess moves. Mikhail Gorbachev's extraordinary Sept. 17 Pravda/Izvestia article calling for a stronger UN was a verbal pledge involving global peacekeeping, environmental, and economic questions. Last week, Mr. Gorbachev put his money where his mouth was by paying off the Kremlin's arrears to the UN.
Moscow has also been sidling up to the post-war General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which runs the money exchange and debt-control machinery. It has been rebuffed, but continues to talk about observer status at those organizations.
Gorbachev's Politburo has authorized these moves at a time when some important Washington officials are more hesitant or negative about global multilateralism than at any time since rejection of the League of Nations between the two world wars.
So the tables seem to be turned. During the first 20 years after World War II, the average American would have been shocked to his toenails to hear that the United States was failing to pay its full dues or was using the UN veto.
That, after all, was what the Soviets did. And sometimes the French. Then Moscow suddenly paid up its arrears for peacekeeping operations extending back to the late 1960s, as well as its regular dues. Washington had thus, in one bold Kremlin move, become the world organization's biggest delinquent.
The US started using the veto in 1970 to prevent UN Security Council actions it disagreed with. That, also, was unthinkable for Americans during the first generation after the UN was founded. In that period, Moscow may have gotten the secret of the A- and H-bombs, and temporarily taken the lead in space flight, but America still had most UN members on its side and could win political ends by majority vote - not veto. Now UN majorities don't automatically vote the way the US does. And even such veto-wielding allies as Britain and France don't always see things the same way Uncle Sam does.
So we come to the crucial question: Is the UN doomed to lose one superpower's support as it gains the support of the other? Anyone who has watched the history of arms control will recognize that question. How often has one superpower become more ready to play just when the other was less ready.
This is no time for despair. The two great powers are closer to being in cycle on arms control than they have been for a long time. And there is no reason why their wary cooperation should not spill over into international cooperation on regional peacekeeping and economic stability. The stock market nose dives in many major capitals are not a repeat of the late 1920s. There is no sound reason that the failure of the League of Nations and the failure of the Kellogg-Briand arms control pact should be repeated like some historic stuck record.
US Secretary of State George Shultz and his aides seem to grasp this point. Lately they appear to have prevailed with President Reagan. What they need now is a broad mandate to continue discussions beyond arms control with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. It would make sense, in fact, for Mr. Shultz and Mr. Shevardnadze to agree that their arms control agenda is part of a larger agenda aimed at reviving the system of global cooperation so bravely designed after the last global war.
That is not, and cannot be, a Big Two job. All important interests and regions would have to participate eventually. But the process of fixing up the machinery cannot really work well unless the two chief competitors in today's world start trying to find some common rules about the territory in which they compete.
On the American side, the process has to be bipartisan. And it has to involve America's allies. On the Soviet side, it will require more than rhetoric and back dues payments. Mr. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze ought to be outlining in private: (1) how their economic reform program might fit into the trade and monetary system of the free market Western and third world; (2) how they might agree to use of UN peacekeeping forces in a tough case such as a Afghanistan.
Conventional wisdom tells us that global cooperation machinery is only designed and put into use when the world has been frightened by major crises such as the world wars and great depression of this century. This could be a moment to buck conventional wisdom. The major nations have several incentives to action. First, there is the promise that the Kremlin might actually abandon the Stalinist economic system. Second, there is the scare of stock market dives. Third, there is the unusual situation in which both superpowers are genuinely interested in not one but two or more steps forward on arms control. Skeptics are right to caution against ploys and maneuvers. They are not right to counsel inaction as a response. This is a time to broaden, not narrow, the tough-minded explorations between Washington and Moscow.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.