For now, a quieter world. Better superpower dealings, progress in regional conflicts offer prospects for more gains

Despite tragedies of famine and earthquake, the world looks to be a more peaceful place as the year draws to a close. Diplomatic and economic observers see hopeful signs of progress in relations among nations, settlement of regional conflicts, and greater awareness of humanity's interdependence. At the same time they point to continuing risks and dangers as nations adjust to accelerating political and economic change.

Among encouraging developments:

A flowering of d'etente between the United States and the Soviet Union, with prospects for better relations and an end to the cold war.

Ending of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with all troops expected to be pulled out by mid-February.

The recent signing of an agreement calling for the withdrawal of all Cuban troops from Angola by 1991 and independence for Namibia.

A diplomatic break in the Middle East logjam, with the United States now talking with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Elections in South Korea, Chile, and Pakistan that have advanced hopes for democracy.

Continuing steps toward economic and political reform in the USSR, the People's Repub lic of China, and Eastern Europe.

Washington analysts caution against exaggerating these developments, however. Violence and authoritarianism remain a norm in much of the world, and the trend toward democracies is still frail.

``The elections in Korea, Pakistan, and Chile are hopeful and positive steps,'' says a US official. ``But we should not be overly complacent. The gains are fragile and could be reversed. Elections are only one part of the democratic process.''

Most astonishing to diplomatic specialists is the course of Soviet-American relations, being driven in large measure by the reformist leader in Moscow. While Mikhail Gorbachev's sweeping initiatives abroad may be more tactical than strategic, they are viewed as a significant change that could eventually alter the whole environment of international politics.

``I feel better at the end of '88 because the Soviet-US relationship has stabilized,'' says Robert Hunter, director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``We have managed to break the cycle on the arms race and there's a new willingness to talk about issues that would not be talked about eight years ago.''

Even the earthquake in Armenia is viewed as a symbol of the changing climate, as the West has offered massive help and the Soviets have for the first time accepted it.

``No one in the West said, `Let them stew,' and that's terribly important,'' comments a senior US official. ``The response from the outside world should be heartening to Gorbachev and his people in trying to think their way through their relationship with the Western world.''

Mr. Gorbachev's willingness to open up Armenia to international help - and scrutiny - tends to put the Soviets in more favorable light abroad, say Kremlinologists.

``As they've begun to move away from such irrational secrecy, this in and of itself reverses one of the major causes of concern about them,'' says Jerry Hough, a Soviet specialist at Duke University. ``If they are confident enough to admit their mistakes, there is a sense that they are more normal.''

Diplomatic observers caution, however, that the context for Gorbachev's bold moves is the economic weakness of the USSR and the economic success of Western nations. So Western leaders, as they debate a response to the shifts in Moscow, must not be stampeded into premature decisions that would weaken alliances in Europe and Asia.

``There clearly are dangers that [America's] friends and allies will be seduced by the new Soviet policy,'' says an Asian diplomat, ``and that they will reduce their commitments to alliances because they no longer see the Soviets as a major threat.''

Nevertheless, the diplomat adds, opportunities are opening up that could reduce the defense burden of the Western nations and lead to mutual security at lower numbers.

While the global scene is calmer today, the potential for increased regional violence remains, especially in the Middle East. Diplomatic analysts are heartened by the fact that the United States has finally begun a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. ``There are some new possibilities now,'' says Robert Neumann, a former US ambassador in the region. ``The Arabs are reestablishing themselves in the world, becoming more realistic and working with the PLO.''

But there is little optimism about a peace negotiation any time soon. Mideast specialists note that the PLO wants an independent Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank, a position Israel adamantly rejects. The Bush administration is likely to go along with the Israeli position.

``The US will not change,'' says Hermann Eilts, a former US envoy to Egypt. ``George Bush wants to be reelected in four years time and he will not pull a Carter [who achieved the Camp David accords]. So when it comes to the substance of the dialogue with the PLO, I do not see any possibility for a meeting of the minds.''

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