THE cold war must be over. They're even selling pieces of the iron curtain. An Austro-Hungarian joint venture offers $20 fragments of the rusting barbed wire dismantled by Hungarian soldiers from their border with Austria last spring. Thus the cold war ends not with a bang or a whimper but with a profit, split 50-50. Or has it ended? In the Gorbachev era, the transformations of Eastern bloc politics and economics have been so startling that the unimaginable has rapidly become routine: In Poland, a peaceful transfer of power from a communist to a Solidarity-run government; in Hungary the emergence of state-sponsored political pluralism; and in the Soviet Union the emergence of quasi-capitalist cooperative businesses and an elected parliament.
But the very regularity of these astonishing developments has led Western politicians and their publics into a dangerous complacency. We have come to take the reform process for granted. ``Leave it to Gorby,'' has become in effect the motto of Western publics. Never having much cared to think about somber subjects like the cold war, most people are simply relieved to hear that someone's finally taking care of it. Meanwhile, politicians like George Bush, after long resisting the trend, have come forth with momentous statements of support but meager substance to encourage new trends in the East. So parsimonious and unimaginative have been the Bush administration's tangible responses that one begins to wonder if it realizes how fleeting the opportunity is.
Yet all signs from the East indicate that reform hangs by the thinnest of threads. In Poland, Solidarity prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki inherits a bankrupt economy. ``Our victory,'' warns Lech Walesa, ``is like a house of cards'' that will collapse unless it is given support. In the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev faces multiple hemorrhages: An economy in which shortages, already endemic to the system, have become pandemic; an empire in deepening disarray as its ethnic groups pull ever more insistently away from Moscow; and a political structure paralyzed in mid-evolution from totalitarianism to quasi-democracy, with reformers on the left pushing for a more decisive break with the past and a far larger and more menacing backlash building on the right.
Those in the West who watch such developments with detachment seem not to be thinking about what might happen if the reforms fail. The reformers themselves know better. In a nationally televised address Sept. 9, Gorbachev warned of ``threats of approaching chaos and talk of a threatened coup, and even of civil war.'' Alexander Yakovlev, his closest ally in the Politburo, predicted last December that if perestroika fails, it would be replaced by ``a triumphant, aggressive, and avenging conservatism.'' It is likely that such an ``avenging conservatism'' would express itself to other nations more or less as it does to its own citizens, with a sullen and imperious brutality characteristic of the past.
The unacknowledged but increasingly unavoidable fact is that the difficulties now facing East bloc reformers are so great that they likely cannot overcome them without substantial aid from the West. This aid need in no sense be a ``handout,'' for what is needed is not charity but investment - on which returns could be immense.
First and foremost, it's in the West's best interest to conclude major arms reduction agreements, both nuclear and conventional, at a moment when the East is ready to deal favorably. These agreements must be structured not only to enhance security but to liberate resources - financial, material, human - desperately needed to rebuild our own domestic base. These savings must be ``front-loaded'' - structured so they arrive during the next few years, while the reform process is still alive. It would do little good to bring oxygen to a patient who expired years ago for lack of it.
Most of this immense disarmament dividend would return directly to the nations now funding arms production. But a modest portion could be set aside to fund a variety of essential recovery tasks - mostly but not exclusively in the East bloc. A conversion fund could be established to retrain workers and retool industries for civilian production. A technical assistance fund could provide Western expertise in consumer goods production, managerial techniques, and quasi-free market organization to East bloc planners. An environmental rescue fund could aid the ecological restoration of a European continent blighted by pollution.
But we should be fully aware of just how high the stakes may be. A failure on the part of the West to capitalize on the opportunity now before us would likely not only condemn the East to the renewed brutality of a counterreformation action, but would infect the West with a virulent revival of cold-war hysteria. We need to think very carefully indeed about what we can do to sustain the positive momentum now under way in the East, since it may take a very long time and a very great effort to summon it forth again.