Two more pieces fell into place this week in the extraordinary process of reshaping through which the world is passing. Canadians voted by a substantial margin in favor of entering into a customs union with the United States. And South Africa signed an agreement which should lead to a withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and of South African troops from Namibia.
Perhaps a third item belongs in the same category of the reshaping of the power world. Inside the Soviet empire, the Lithuanians followed the Estonians in reaching openly and publicly toward independence, and were even allowed to make the yearning visible without immediate suppression.
The customs union which, in effect, lies ahead for Canada and the US, will presumably be pacing evolution in Western Europe toward a similar economic merger. Another trend, less pronounced and probably farther in the future, is growing cooperation between Japan and China.
The world is moving into new economic groups brought about not by military conquest, as in previous centuries, but by mutual economic interests and diplomatic agreement. There is empire building and empire weakening going on as in ages past, but the process of change is so different that it is scarcely recognizable.
We are seeing one of the consequences, by far the most important to individual lives, of the nuclear age. The nuclear weapon is so enormously disastrous that the great powers shun war. They are as heavily armed as before but with weapons they dare not use.
Had there been no nuclear weapons in existence, the US and Soviet Union would almost certainly have gone to world war against each other during the cold war era. They were restrained from actual war by the mutual realization that they could not fight without slipping into the use of nuclear weapons with unacceptable consequences to both sides.
They did not go to war with each other and will not. The perception of that fact dominates the thinking of foreign offices all over the world. It becomes possible for individual nations to move toward or away from each other at will and with declining regard for the preferences of the two superpowers.
Canada has been invaded twice from south of the border, in the American Revolution, and again during the War of 1812. Both invasions were repulsed. In those days, the early US Americans wanted to conquer Canada by arms, but the Canadians thought otherwise. Now, as soon as Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney can get the necessary legislation through Parliament, Canada will join the US in a new freer-trade environment.
From that time on, the Canadian-US combination will bargain as one with the other great economic empires which are forming.
The biggest, and perhaps eventually the top superpower of the economic world, will be Western Europe. Add together the economic assets of Western Europe and you will discover that a coordinated Western Europe would exceed either the US or the Soviet Union in most elements of economic strength except land area and mineral oil.
The US needs the added economic strength of Canada to meet a combined West European community at the economic bargaining table.
Who else will be a major player at that bargaining table of the new world that is coming into existence? Certainly a Japan strengthened by its economic ties with its Asian friends and associates.
During World War II, Japan aimed at gaining by arms what it called ``a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.'' The US said no, and enforced that no.
Today, Japan controls through economic ties as much of Asia's economy as it ever might have conquered by arms in that last great world war. The relationship between the economic island empire which Japan has already formed and mainland China is still in the formative stage. No one can be sure how far it will go and how soon.
Japan is already the major supplier of sophisticated technology and industrial products to China. The tour buses that carry the rising tide of tourists around China are Japanese, the motorcycles and even private cars being bought by the newly wealthy Chinese farmers usually come from Japan.
Will someday there be a Japan-Chinese economic partnership coming to the bargaining table of the nations?
And will Russia be there, and who will be Russia's partners? Russia, in today's form of the Soviet Union, has military dependencies. But many of them are in one degree or another pulling away from the economic association. Will this trend continue?
It seems, probably as a result of what South Africa did this week, that Moscow's two main military clients in Africa will be pulling away. Cuban soldiers (58,000) and their Soviet ``advisers'' (950) are supposed to leave Angola. Cuban ``advisers'' are down to 600, and Soviets down to 850 in Mozambique.
The Soviet economic empire is shrinking faster than the military empire.