Zbigniew Brzezinski, who ran foreign policy at the White House for Jimmy Carter, stilled a lot of discussion among foreign policymakers by recently suggesting that the year 1988 will turn out to be as upsetting of the old order of things as was the year 1848. The year 1848 was when a wave of revolutionary nationalism spread across Europe and broke up the patterns which had marked the post-Napoleonic era.
Since 1945, the world has been moving through the post-World War II era dominated by the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
At a recent conference of foreign policy experts held by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the theory was put forward that we are now in the ``post-postwar'' era; i.e., that this is simply a new and different world. And no one stood up to challenge the thesis.
There was, in fact, general agreement that we are now living in a new era which is already identifiable by the fact that most world news these days is about turmoil in or between small countries and has little or no relationship to US-Soviet rivalry.
The US and the Soviet Union are still the major military powers. Neither one has yet cut back on its mobilized and deployed conventional military power. The latest annual report of the IISS, which identifies a new era around us, also notes that the Soviets have as yet made no changes in their deployment of forces into a less offensive pattern (nor has the US).
In fact, according to the report, Soviet forces in Europe are still positioned for swift offensive action, and the number of tanks, self-propelled artillery, and combat aircraft in those formations has apparently increased over the past year.
So the United States and the Soviet Union are still in a posture of being armed and poised against each other.
Yet the range of political influence of both is in fact contracting. The Soviets are pulling out of Afghanistan and are allowing, even in some cases apparently encouraging, more autonomy among their subject peoples and satellite neighbors. Mikhail Gorbachev has allowed nationalism and nationalistic street demonstrations among the Baltic Republics - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Cabinet reshuffles, major changes in government and economic direction have been making world news of late. Burma is in a state of unresolved turmoil. Prime ministers or party leaders have been replaced in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Yugoslavia is working its way through a political crisis that threatens that polyglot state.
It is certainly far too early to talk about a breakup of the Soviet empire. Yet the Soviet empire is in fact contracting. Its ability to control or coerce its neighbors is in decline. It is getting out of Afghanistan and apparently trying to get out of southern Africa. It continues to give support to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and is still a major supporter of Fidel Castro's government in Cuba. That represents an investment which the Soviets are not yet ready to abandon.
But matters have reached the point where Western foreign policy analysts wonder among themselves whether Moscow would actually use its armed forces if Romania or Hungary, for example, were to try to break out of the Soviet orbit.
Even a year ago it would have been taken for granted that Moscow would enforce the Brezhnev doctrine (once socialist, always socialist) against any satellite which tried to break away.
Today there is a question in place of a certainty.
One may argue that the Soviet Union is merely going through a period of rest and recuperation from empire building. But the fact is that as of today it is reducing its commitments and its ventures. It is not at this time an expansionist power. In fact, Israel is the only country in the world today that is actually engaged in territorial expansion by military means.
The other major evidence for this being a changed world is the still rising influence of other countries. Ten years ago this was still a two-power world.
Today, China is a factor in everyone's calculations. It is probably the main reason for persuading the Soviets to pull out of Afghanistan.
Japan is the most solvent and influential economic power in the world. Western Europe is emerging, or reemerging, as a major force as it moves toward economic integration. Some experts include India as a major power.
During the post-World War II era, the US and Soviet Union were giants looking at each other across a power vacuum in Europe and another in Asia - where once there had been German and Japanese empires. There was nothing in between as there had been in previous history.
In this new ``post-post-war'' era there are no longer power-empty spaces between the US and Soviet Union. There are other powers in those spaces. Those powers must be considered and recognized.
Hence, Soviet versus US relations have ceased to be the only game in town.