WE are far from out of the Gulf crisis, and there may be perils aplenty ahead. Yet if we look beyond the immediacy of events, we can perceive a number of positive and constructive longterm trends developing.
Far and away the most significant is the revitalization of the United Nations as a force for deterring aggression. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a clearcut instance of international banditry such as the UN was created to respond to. One nation illegally invaded another, violating recognized international borders. Iraq, as President Bush put it, ``is literally trying to wipe a country off the face of the earth.'' The UN has responded with dispatch and anger and vigor. It voted to roll back the invasion by economic sanctions against Iraq, and has held open the option of more militant action if the sanctions do not work.
Instead of bureaucratic dithering and circumlocution, the UN has acted directly and decisively. This may well be its finest hour. Let other would-be tyrants and territory-seizers beware.
The second significant development is the ability of longtime adversaries like the United States and Soviet Union to work together in the service of peace. For the past 40 years, a crisis such as the present one in the Gulf would have been the occasion for Soviet and American confrontation. It is unthinkable that Mr. Gorbachev's predecessors would have permitted a massive American military buildup in Saudi Arabia without ominous rumbling from Moscow. This time, even though the Soviets may have had some reservations, American Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze were able to present a united public front against Saddam Hussein. When there was a hint of Soviet wavering over the extent and vigor of the American buildup, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev met at Helsinki and renewed an alliance against the Iraqi regime. Mr. Hussein did his best to pry the old antagonists apart, but on this issue they stood firmly together.
A third positive development is the refurbishing of America's image as a world power that is not afraid to assume its global responsibilities. During the administration of President Carter, this American image became tattered by Washington's indecision and weakness. One thing Americans liked most about Ronald Reagan was his determination to bolster the American image again. And he did. ``America is back,'' proclaimed the Reaganites, and their administration embarked on a program to rebuild a military machine that had been allowed to run down. Unfortunately, though the strength was there, and was used in such excursions as Grenada, there were other occasions - as in Lebanon - when the staying power of the US was in question. Did America have the resolve? it was sometimes asked. President Bush seems to have answered that with a resounding ``yes.'' He sent an army to Saudi Arabia, and shows every indication of keeping American forces there as long as needed.
This sense of American commitment and reliability is another plus to emerge from the Gulf crisis. It, too, may help deter other aggressors who suspect that the United States may bluster but stop short of determined action.
What Saddam Hussein may have done, much to his surprise, is trigger a new kind of mood, and a new kind of mechanism, for dealing with international aggression.
We do indeed seem to be moving into what President Bush calls a ``new world order.'' It is a world in which the predictability of cold war confrontation no longer pertains. The polarization of the world behind two superpowers is no more, and there has been erosion of Washington's and Moscow's ability to maintain their influence on their various client states. The ``new world order'' will mean a more flexible order and regional tyrants like Saddam Hussein may try to take advantage of it.
That is why what is happening over and above the Gulf crisis is particularly significant. The UN has become a more vital force in policing the world. The US and USSR have shown that within the framework of the UN they can work in constructive alliance. The US has shown that it has the stomach to use its military power. A broad array of nations has gathered together - some sending money, some men, some supplies - to show that their words of condemnation of aggression are backed up by tangible effort.
It is all an important signal for others who might seek inspiration from Saddam Hussein's power grab.