IT is beginning to dawn on us all that the war in the Gulf has not only vanquished a particularly unpleasant tyrant, and perhaps opened the door a crack to peace in the Middle East, but has also dramatically changed the power structure of the world. The United States, far from being in the state of decline that many of the doomsayers have been predicting, has just accomplished an extraordinary triumph of diplomacy, will, technology, and weaponry. And all in pursuit of a principle - halting aggression by a large country against a small one - about which there can be no carping.
This escalation of American strength and stature comes at a time when the other superpower - the Soviet Union - is in decline internationally and in disarray at home.
In the Gulf war, an 11th-hour bid by the Soviets to effect a diplomatic coup came to naught; the Soviets had neither influence with Saddam Hussein, nor had they committed the military power to the war that might have made them a principal player with the allies.
Even the military hardware the Soviets had supplied the Iraqis proved an embarrassment. Soviet defense spokesmen were quick to fault Iraqi expertise in its use, and to point out that, anyway, the Soviet Union does not export its top-of-the-line weaponry - a selling point that many of its foreign clients must have found intriguing.
Thus, as the United States moves quickly in the aftermath of war to nudge the Middle East peace process forward, the Soviet Union is a bystander in the wings, reduced to having its ambassador to Egypt get a quick fill-in from Secretary of State James Baker in the latter's Cairo hotel room.
All this comes at a time when the Soviet Union is shaken to its very communist foundations by citizen outrage over the economy, by opposition disaffection with an increasingly testy Mikhail Gorbachev, and by separatists who have raised such furor that the country will vote in a March 17 referendum on whether to keep the union together. Huge crowds surge against the Kremlin walls demanding Gorbachev's resignation, and one Soviet writer says the Soviet Union is ``probably more anticommunist now than the U nited States.''
Beyond the superpowers, no nation looms to challenge the present American eminence. China is barely heard from. The economic giants, Japan and Germany, were faceless in the Gulf war because of their inability to project military power. Japan, once again, was caught up in uncertain contemplation of its world role; Germany watched as the British burnished the Anglo-American alliance anew by sending their Desert Rats and their Royal Air Force squadrons to fight alongside the American forces.
If we are indeed entering a new American era in international affairs, how should the United States use its influence and authority?
The conduct of the campaign against Saddam Hussein offers some useful guidelines. Although the United States clearly provided the military muscle and leadership, it carefully consulted and coordinated with a wide spectrum of nations both inside and outside the alliance that was doing the fighting. At the United Nations it conducted a brilliant diplomatic campaign, keeping supporters on board, keeping neutralists neutral, and keeping opponents at bay.
In the past, the United States has been accused of attempting to impose its will around the world with evangelistic fervor. That fervor was tempered after Vietnam as the realities of American limitations in a diverse and complicated world set in. That pull-back has been accentuated by recent economic problems that have restricted the American role abroad.
But with its role as a superpower reasserted again in the Gulf war, the United States cannot avoid the responsibilities of a superpower, especially leadership in defense of principle, and the ultimate willingness to use force in support of diplomacy.
If in the course of all this the United States has matured in the art of diplomacy, has learned better to work with others, as seems to be the case in the latest attempt to revive a Middle East peace process, so much to the good.