A look around the world today discloses an important new fact. The ``new era'' which Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed in Moscow a week ago is an entirely different thing from the ``d'etente'' of Nixon-Kissinger days.
The old ``d'etente'' was built on an arms control agreement, SALT I, and was destroyed by ``regional conflicts.'' The fatal blow to it was struck when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
The Reagan-Gorbachev ``new era'' has been built on the resolution of the most visible and violent ``regional conflict'' involved in East-West relations: The Soviet decision to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan cleared the way for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow, and also for the ratification by the US Senate of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
This is getting priorities right. The real cause of the original ``cold war'' and of its revival in 1979 was the thrust of Soviet power which took form in the various regional conflicts around the world with the Soviets backing one faction and the Americans the other.
An arms control agreement cannot by itself resolve a regional conflict. But resolution of the main regional conflicts can clear the way for arms control and reduction.
Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, now well under way, is only one place where East-West tension is declining.
In Nicaragua, the rival factions, Sandinista government versus contra rebels, are in a state of truce because both Washington and Moscow have cut back, hard, on support for their clients.
Negotiations are under way over both Angola and Mozambique. There is a prospect of withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, and Soviet advisers from both countries. The unexpected planting of Cuban troops in Angola in 1975 was the first serious disturbance to d'etente.
Vietnam says it intends to withdraw troops from Cambodia. This, if it matures, will fulfill the last of China's three conditions for normalizing relations with Moscow. The other two conditions have already been met in part. Soviet troops are already pulling out of Afghanistan, and have been reduced in Mongolia.
In the Gulf, the fighting between Iraq and Iran seems to be slowing down. There is much talk of a possible truce. One reason is that Moscow and Washington have managed to keep that war from becoming a proxy fight.
There are still plenty of regional conflicts, but none where the superpowers are urging their clients to more military effort. In fact, there is quiet, backstage collaboration to ease the tension and find a local compromise.
Another way of saying all this is that there is no place in the world today where Moscow and Washington are still aggressively trying to expand their influence.
The question today is not how far the Soviets will try to push, but how long they can hold the advanced positions which they now have. What will glasnost and perestroika mean in Eastern Europe? There is ferment in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, and in Hungary. How long will Romania's people tolerate their useless tyranny?
The Soviet Union of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev was engaged in empire-building. Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union is contracting overseas and to the south and doing only empire maintenance east and west.
The most intractable of all regional conflicts today is that between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Until now the US has supported Israel while Moscow has aided the Arabs. This week Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze agreed to meet at the UN in New York with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Also this week, US Secretary of State George Shultz met Mr. Shamir in Jerusalem and came away saying that continued Israeli occupation of the territories seized from Arabs in the 1967 war is ``a dead-end street'' and cannot continue without increasing the danger of war.
The rationale behind US military aid to Israel has always been that Israel helped keep the Soviets out of the Middle East. But today the Soviets are taking themselves out of Afghanistan, long seen as their launching pad for further intrusion into the Middle East.
Was Mr. Shultz hinting that someday the US might cut its support unless Israel makes peace with the Arabs? If a hint, it was mild, but consistent with the new East-West trend for both sides to reduce encouragement to their clients in proxy wars. This is indeed a ``new era.''