THE next phase in international affairs seems likely to be marked by more basic changes and more uncertainty than have the last three decades. The first postwar decade was, of course, one of radical shifts in outlook, relations, and policies as a result of the Soviet threat and Western European stagnation. But in 1956, the new framework of relations was stabilized. With the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the Schuman Plan, Western Europe was revived, organized, and linked with the United States. Europe was divided. With the brutal Hungarian repression in 1956, the Soviet Union had manifested its tight grip on Eastern Europe.
Japan was tied to the West. Both the United States and USSR had explicitly recognized that major nuclear war would be suicidal. The cold war rivalry focused mainly on competition in arms and in the third world. The two main structures in the international order were the East-West balance of power and the noncommunist cooperative system.
In the three decades since, the economic growth of Western Europe and Japan, the Sino-Soviet split, and US-Soviet nuclear parity have all had an impact. Yet the basic postwar framework has remained intact.
In the next decade or so, the forces of change seem likely to cumulate and interact:
Obviously, a major factor will be the impact of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policies on the USSR and East-West relations, if he stays in power and carries through. His desire to concentrate on sweeping economic and political reforms leads him to seek to tamp down the arms race and to reduce Soviet ventures in the third world. The results could profoundly moderate the East-West conflict and largely determine the USSR's future power and role.
In the coming decade the European Community could emerge as a more effective economic and political entity, with some 320 million citizens and a larger GNP than that of the US. The EC seems likely to achieve its target of completing a genuine single market by 1992 nearly on time. All except British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seem ready to go much further. And according to a recent poll, Community citizens, except in Britain and Denmark, favor the creation of a quasi-federal European government by about 2 to 1. France, Germany, and Britain are taking initiatives to strengthen a West European pillar in NATO through the Western European Union and in other ways.
Japan, whose economy is still growing steadily, is beginning to assert itself more strongly in the international arena. This tendency seems likely to intensify.
China's economic reforms are producing growth at rates comparable to those of Japan in the 1960s. If that continues, its industrial output would double or even triple by the year 2000. How would that enhance China's influence in Asia?
How Eastern Europe, and Soviet control there, will be affected by Mr. Gorbachev's policies is highly uncertain. Looser Soviet constraints do not appear to include political pluralism or letting go; yet keeping control will grow more difficult.
What about the US? Military buildup and prosperity have been bought at the cost of unprecedented deficits for seven years; about $200 billion of borrowing has been pumped into the economy each year, nearly tripling the national debt. The vitality of US society is also imperiled by other neglected problems such as competitiveness, education, drugs, and the inner cities. Will leaders and citizens face up to the predicament, rebuilding international leadership?
Notably, the sources of these potential changes are almost all internal. Yet external relations and roles are inevitably affected. The changes do not invalidate the basic postwar framework. Until the USSR clearly becomes a status quo power, an East-West military balance, even if at lower levels, will be needed. And Western cooperation will remain critical for prosperity and security in an interdependent world. One objective should be to involve the USSR and other communist states in such cooperation.
Yet roles and relations will have to be adjusted substantially to reflect the new conditions. Leadership, skill, and patience will be required. Stresses and strains may occur which could dangerously disrupt cohesion and confidence.
The US should take the lead in bringing about the essential adjustments. To be credible, however, it will have to put its own house in order and pursue an internationalist policy, forgoing unilateralism. That will be one of the many challenging tasks facing the next president.
Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for nearly 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.