When the Soviet Union offers agricultural assistance to a developing country these days, it is viewed as ``more of a threat than anything else,'' a European diplomat says. He is talking about a perception that is becoming more and more central to superpower calculations: Soviet influence in the developing world is not what it once was.
Some experts say it is slipping, and the Soviets seem unable or unwilling to halt the decline. Others argue that the Soviets are merely ``consolidating'' their influence, and being wary about overextending themselves.
``Since the early 1980s, no country in the world has come under significant Soviet influence,'' says Stephen D. Goose, a researcher at the Center for Defense Information (CDI).
Today, the Soviet military is still strong. The Soviet economy, though performing unspectacularly, is far from collapse. But when it comes to competition in the developing world, the Soviet Union is, according to many Western experts, a superpower in eclipse.
Because it deals in nonconvertible currencies with artificial exchange rates, the Soviet Union does not provide much of a market for the developing world. And because it must import both food and advanced technology from the West, experts say, the Soviet Union is hardly considered a fount of development expertise or a model for emulation in the third world.
Moreover, some analysts believe that time -- particularly the end of decolonization -- may have passed the Kremlin by. When European powers were being shorn of their colonies in the developing world, the Soviets happily provided arms and training to guerrilla forces eager to hasten that process.
But what do they do for a followup?
``After these countries have gotten their independence, what do they need?'' asks the European diplomat. ``They need economic assistance. And they aren't going to get that from the Soviet Union.''
Conventional wisdom has it that when Soviet attraction has waned, Soviet muscle has worked. But even that assumption is being called into question.
Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, says, ``The Soviet influence in the world today is far less than it was when I came to the Senate in 1966.''