THE dramatic events of recent days in Moscow have underlined for us once again that in foreign affairs it is much better to focus on principles and policies, rather than personalities. Whether Mikhail Gorbachev falls or survives is, of course, a gripping human drama. But the critical question is not the fate of any one politician. The critical question is whether the Soviet Union, with its restless republics and unwilling satellites, is to retreat into darkness or continue its halting quest for freedom both political and economic.
That is going to depend, as the quest for freedom always does, on the will of its people. Is there something in the Russian psyche that will inevitably thrust the Soviet Union back into a bleak world of fear, conspiracy, and dictatorship? Or has the whiff of freedom so exhilarated and emboldened its people that they are ready to hold at bay the conservative bureaucrats, the army's tanks, and the agents of the KGB?
That is why it is important for the United States to base its policies not on the fleeting fortunes of intriguing and fascinating politicians like Mr. Gorbachev, but on the underlying directions and lasting commitments of the Soviet Union.
On the positive side, there is a wealth of evidence that the USSR is a country much changed for the better. It has set Eastern Europe free, and such is the fervent embrace of democracy in such countries as Poland and what used to be East Germany that there can be no turning the clock back.
In the Soviet Union itself, the fact that Eduard Shevardnadze could stand up in public, renounce his foreign ministership, criticize Gorbachev, and warn of impending ``dictatorship,'' proves that the Soviet Union has advanced light years from the fear-ridden regimes of Stalin, and even Brezhnev and Andropov. In earlier years, Mr. Shevardnadze would have been shot for such heresy.
Then there is the passionate public self-examination of processes and practices in the Soviet Union unleashed by Gorbachev's move towards reform. Communism has failed and is being replaced, with halts and starts, by ideas from the West. But the hard lesson the conservatives have been learning is that economic freedom and political freedom go hand in hand.
Marvel, then, at the frankness with which Soviet citizens speak out every night on American newscasts. A Moscow housewife, scrambling for scarce food, thinks nothing of telling an American television crew that her government is messing up the economy. In the lobby of parliament, legislators discuss Gorbachev's prospects with breathtaking freedom. Soviet journalists stationed in the United States appear on talk shows and analyze events at home with something akin to the frankness of American journalists brutally dissecting their own government process.
It is difficult to see how all this can be turned off.
But of course there are negative factors too.
There is Shevardnadze's somber warning of pending dictatorship. There is the drift in recent months of Gorbachev toward the embrace of the military and the KGB. There is the chilling weekend speech of KGB chairman Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, as nasty a piece of anti-Western poison as we have seen since the cold war. He clearly included the US in an attack against economic subversion and sabotage in the Soviet Union and darkly warned against creeping capitalism. There were even such fanciful charges as that Western nations were shipping contaminated grain and equipment with missing parts to the Soviet Union.
In sacrificing himself politically, Shevardnadze, apparently believing that Gorbachev's reform movement is at a watershed, seemed to be sending several dramatic messages. To his old political colleague Mikhail Gorbachev, he seemed to be warning of indecision and drift while problems linger. To the reformers of the left, he seemed to be warning that they lack cohesion and direction. To the hard-liners of the right, he seemed to be warning that the tide of history is against them.
While the US waits to see whether his startling gesture will have a positive effect, it should support constructive forces for change in the Soviet Union but remain alert to the possibility that the generals of the cold war could yet be resurgent.