For those who are watching with both hope and doubts the spread of a new stability over many of the world's trouble spots (Afghanistan, the Gulf, southern Africa) there is one large comfort to be offered: No matter how fragile the newly emerging stability may be, it is not likely to be seriously disturbed by the outcome of the American elections in November. Any change at the White House can mean sharp changes in foreign policy. But there is much reason to assume that this time very little will change, no matter which political party wins.
Right now, both candidates, George Bush and Michael Dukakis, are busy accentuating their differences, or trying to create an appearance of difference where none really exists.
But behind differences of emphasis, both are in the mainstream of American foreign policy. Both believe in the NATO alliance, the special relationship with Japan, the new relationship with China, and the easing of tensions with Moscow.
The most visible difference is over how to judge Moscow's self-advertised new ``defensive'' posture. Is the Soviet Union moving into an era of being and behaving like a ``satisfied'' power, instead of being an expansionist empire?
Vice President Bush, being a Republican candidate, takes a skeptical attitude. His first reaction to the chumminess of the Moscow summit in May was ``the cold war isn't over.'' His subsequent attitude toward the new ``d'etente'' is, in effect, ``OK, we like it, but let's keep our powder dry.''
Mr. Bush is not ready to toss away ``the Soviet menace'' doctrine which fueled the great military programs of the Reagan years and generates substantial funding for Republican campaigns.
Mr. Dukakis, whose basic constituency is in the big cities of the United States, with their festering slums, is less worried about a ``Soviet menace.'' He talks about cutting back on what he considers unnecessary duplication of weapons. In office he would probably spend less money on weapons, although he has not yet worked through his policy on defense with his professional advisers.
For example, Dukakis talks about building conventional military power so that the US could with renounce ``first use'' of nuclear weapons. His advisers have not got through to him, yet, the fact that a conventional substitute for nuclear deterrence would cost more, not less.
This has opened Mr. Dukakis to the Bush charge of ``being soft on defense.'' This means defense contractors have more reason to contribute to Bush than to Dukakis, which undoubtedly they are doing right now.
Dukakis is more openly pro-Israel. He has said that he would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a statement he might have to repudiate in office for overriding foreign policy reasons. However, he has refused to commit himself to the pro-Israel proposition that there must never be a separate ``Palestinian state.''
Mr. Bush is more aware of the importance of US relations with Arab countries and more inclined toward being evenhanded between Israel and the Arabs.
The two differ over sanctions against South Africa. Dukakis favors sanctions. Bush opposes them.
Probably Bush would be more likely to resort to military action such as the invasion of Grenada or the attack on Libya. Dukakis would tend to try to solve such problems through international diplomacy and cooperation with allies rather than by unilateral action.
Dukakis says he would try to talk with Cuba's Fidel Castro, and he supports the Central American peace plan for Nicaragua and the region. Bush would probably shun Castro and send more guns to the contras in Nicaragua - if they are still in existence next January.
While Dukakis is still a little to the left, or ``soft,'' side of mainstream US foreign policy, and Bush is still a little to the right, or ``hard'' side, both are tending to move in toward center. By election day, Nov. 8, their positions are likely to be closer than they are now.
In office Bush is likely to name James Baker III, newly resigned as secretary of the treasury, as his secretary of state. Baker is a ``mainstreamer'' in foreign policy.
Dukakis is also likely to choose an experienced ``mainstreamer'' to make up for his own lack of experience in foreign policy. There will be no foreign policy ``shocks'' when the new president takes office.