If there is anything the world's most powerful nation needs at this moment in history it is a sense of balance. The question of whether America will keep its balance has pointedly arisen in connection with China during the past few days. But it pervades the whole challenge of walking the tightrope of change with democratic allies, the nonaligned third world, and the other superpower, the Soviet Union.
Take the China episode first: It involved the interpretation of a speech by Richard Holbrooke, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs. A reported key statement was: "The famous triangular diplomacy of the early 1970s is no longer an adequate conceptual framework in which to view relations with China." What is to be made of a State Department official's words that could be -- and were -- welcomed by Chinese Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping as indicating a United States tilt toward China and an end to evenhandedness in policy toward China and the Soviet Union?
Such evenhandedness had already appeared to fade with the granting of trade preference to China and the more recent agreement to let US firms sell China a wide range of "nonlethal" military equipment not available to Russia. The intent seemed to plain in strategic terms when Moscow was newly alarming both the US and nearby China with its brutal military adventure in Afghanistan.
But anything like an announcement of giving up "triangular diplomacy" looks like also giving up a certain flexibility in dealing with two nations which, though disparate in present power, are both communist totalitarian states opposed to American political principles. It would be shortsighted to foreclose an eventual return to better relations with Moscow by enshrining a tilt toward Peking.