Look at the vast sweep of the third world through American eyes, and the Soviet Union appears voracious -- pouring destabilizing military aid and advice into the coffers and the ears of leaders in Cuba, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, Syria, Libya, and more. Look from the Kremlin's own perspective, however, and the view is far more uncertain and complex.
Since 1980, Moscow has become much more sober, less flamboyant, less rhetorical, and much more conscious of:
The costs in rubles and kopecks of underpinning what some Western writers call its ``imperial burden.''
The uncertainties and difficulties presented by a third world itself in transition -- from the rush for independence two decades ago to a struggle for economic survival today.
The third world, in fact, appears to a number of Soviet analysts as less of a glorious battleground and more of a difficult mine field.
These are the views of Soviet-policy analysts at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the George Kennan Institute in Washington, the W. Averell Harriman Institute in New York, and the London School of Economics.
All were contacted by this newspaper in recent days as Mikhail Gorbachev consolidates his power in the Kremlin, almost a year after taking office. Each of these specialists has written and lectured widely on Soviet policies in the third world.
None deny that overall Soviet strategy remains the same. To the Kremlin, the third world is still a crucial ideological, economic, and social front line, on which it is battling the United States in a war of ideas aimed at gaining influence and strategic advantage.
All agree that the Soviets remain active, that they have scored some gains, and that they hew to a long-term view. Among their gains in the last decade: their naval ships use Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, the Ethiopian port of Assab on the Red Sea, and the South Yemeni port of Aden where Arabia meets Africa at the mouth of the Red Sea.
They are trying to build permanent local Communist Party structures instead of relying only on individual charismatic leaders in such nations as Ethiopia, Nicaragua, South Yemen, Afghanistan, Angola, and Mozambique.
On the Arabian Peninsula in the last two years they have succeeded in selling arms to Kuwait, opening their first-ever diplomatic ties with Oman and the United Arab Emirates, widening contacts with Saudi Arabias, and pursuing lasting (if uneven) relations with Syria and Libya.
Yet, the analysts believe, the Soviets also face problems not always immediately apparent to Western eyes.
Persistent and troubling antigovernment insurgencies in six of the states they value the most: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, and Nicaragua.
While none of the rebels are winning, they're not being crushed either.
Strong rebel insurgencies have made Angola and Mozambique the two weakest chinks in Soviet armor. Since not one pro-Soviet third-world government has left the Kremlin orbit in recent years, a single defeat could set an unwelcome precedent.
The comforting ideological world-view that saw the third world marching to an inevitable anti-Western beat no longer holds. Soviet theoreticians appear puzzled as a result. What, for instance, about the Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, who might be anti-US, but who is also fervently anti-Soviet? What about the rebels in Afghanistan?
So far Moscow's answer is to blame ``outside forces,'' by which it means the United States and its allies (such as Pakistan, which lies on Afghanistan's eastern border.)
But in countries such as Afghanistan, South Yemen, Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique, a pro-Soviet government is clearly no guarantee against tribal infighting, civil war, poverty, and economic chaos.
Moscow finds itself with contradictory third-world aims: still trying to export revolution on the one hand, but wanting full diplomatic relations with large, influential countries (Brazil, Argentina, India) on the other, even though some of those countries are visibly upset at the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The sheer cost of propping up their friends is more and more irksome at a time of economic difficulties at home.
Western analysts estimate that Moscow spends up to $13 million a day in Cuba, up to $12 million more a day in Afghanistan, about $8 million a day in Vietnam, and $3 million a day in Ethiopia.
While the US, too, spends on its favored friends (for example, at least $10 million a day in Israel, $6.3 million a day in Egypt, $655,000 a day in the Philippines), the US economy is twice as big as Moscow's.
The Soviet dilemma is this: whether to keep on pumping in military aid, which throws long-term economic development out of shape . . . or whether to set limits to such aid, which might lead to a rebel takeover in Angola or Mozambique.
Partly underlying Soviet concern: fewer third-world ``opportunities'' so far in the 1980s as compared to the 1970s, which saw the breakup of the Portuguese colonial empire (Angola, Mozambique), wars such as Ethiopia versus Somalia, and the United States' preoccupation with Vietnam.
All the analysts note a shift in Soviet tactics, an air of more sober realism.
Elizabeth Valkenier of the Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union, Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics, and Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, all cite the latest draft of the 1961 Soviet Communist Party Program, which was issued last Oct. 26, as evidence of this change in tactics.
Gone is the fiery rhetoric of optimism in Nikita Khrushchev's original draft. Absent is the 1961 encouragement for a united front of third-world revolutionary parties rolling back the tide of colonialism and capitalism. And dropped is the assertion that it is the Kremlin's ``international duty'' to help such wars of national liberation.
Instead, the new draft admits that some newly independent states have chosen capitalist, Western paths. It specifies that the Soviet Union will help only ``to the extent of its ability.''
In May 1985, Mr. Gorbachev's remarks in Moscow to visiting Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India contained no references at all to what the late Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, used to call the ``inalienable right'' of developing countries to be anti-imperialist.
``The Soviets are somewhat disillusioned with their activism of the 1970s, with its cost, and with the complexities of the third world,'' says Dr. Valkenier of the Harriman Institute.
``Soviet officials are much less keen now to predict transitions to socialism,'' Dr. Halliday believes.
``The Kremlin is clearly worried about its pro-Soviet allies, which are unable to defeat their guerrillas,'' says Mark Katz of the Kennan Institute at the Smithsonian in Washington.
Nonetheless, as Dr. Litwak points out, the third world still remains as central an area as ever for the Soviet Union's antagonism toward the West. It is the tactics that have changed.
Neither have President Reagan and or Gorbachev reached firm understandings on third-world policies.
At the 40th anniversary of the United Nations late last year, Mr. Reagan called for Soviet restraint in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, and Nicaragua. Gorbachev raised third-world issues with Reagan as one of the four main areas of discussion at the Geneva summit. The others were: arms control, human rights, and bilateral issues (trade, cultural exchange).