THE competition between the United States and the Soviet Union is often pictured as a contest between two economic systems. After a brief visit to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, one wonders why there is this perception of competition. If the success of a system is measured by the degree to which it seems to provide reasonable access to the necessities of life, the socialist system is not working in the Soviet Union. (Strangely, one never hears reference in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to communism.) In other countries in Eastern Europe, there are variations that seem outwardly to be more successful, but the scope for experimentation in these countries is clearly limited by Soviet influence.
The flight from Helsinki to Leningrad takes slightly more than an hour, yet it spans two different worlds. One leaves the bright lights, the bountiful shops, and the busy streets of the Finnish capital to arrive in a city of faded glory in which the conspicuous preoccupation of the people is the purchase of the necessities of life. The overwhelming initial impression is of lines of people waiting at small kiosks and larger shops for meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, and other consumer products.
In the few encounters possible with Soviet citizens, the impression of shortages is confirmed. They spend many hours of each week waiting in such queues. The just-in-case bag accompanies them everywhere, to be used when the word circulates that tomatoes or meat or some other important commodity may be available.
The situation appears better in Moscow than in Leningrad, and better still in East Berlin. Romanians seek to work around the system: Packages of American cigarettes serve as an important alternative medium of exchange.
The Soviets, particularly in Leningrad, cite the World War II losses for their continuing problems. They emphasize that Mikhail Gorbachev is seeking to correct the faults of the system and is encouraging self-criticism. In Eastern Europe, a party official openly acknowledged that the system was flawed by an absence of incentive to produce and to sell. The lassitude of the clerks in the shops reinforced the view that there is little pressure to create demand or to respond to demand where it exists.
Defenders of the system stress that no one is going hungry and that life for the mass of the people in the Soviet Union is better today than it was before the revolution. This may be true in some parts of Eastern Europe as well. But the comparison the visitor makes is not with Russia of 1917, but with Western Europe today. There were war losses in Western Europe and problems of social inequality in many countries as well, but both have been overcome, and substantial progress has been made. It is hard to escape the conclusion that something else is wrong in Eastern Europe.
The Western visitor to the East, seeing the outward signs of weakness in the Soviet system, is tempted to wonder why there is any problem of competition between systems at all. Some may even wonder whether the Soviet Union can sustain itself. Such thoughts are modified by other glimpses, reminders of Soviet military power, stories of the constant surveillance and pressures on the peoples of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the impression in Russia of solid nationalist barriers to outside influence.
The defense of the system is reinforced by propaganda that pictures and frequently exaggerates the worst features of the Western capitalist system. In the areas of the world where the Soviet system has made occasional gains -- in Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America -- the gains come not from the success of the system but through the exploitation of political and economic grievances long since corrected in most Western democracies. The mechanism of political control, not the economic benefits, brings about the establishment and perpetuation of the Soviet system.
Serious weaknesses exist in a number of Western economic systems, to be sure, but it is hard to conceive today of a strong democracy where the problems of production and distribution approach those visible to the visitor to the Soviet Union. If competition between the West and the East were to depend solely on the capacity of a system to provide with reasonable ease the necessities for its people, there would be no contest.
David D. Newsom, associate dean of the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, is on sabbatical in London. He has just completed a two-week visit to the Soviet Union; East Berlin; Belgrade; and Bucharest, Romania.