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The World From... Washington

Overtaken by last year's collapse of the East bloc, the city on the Potomac is back at the head of the parade

HIS is a thin-skinned town, perhaps, but Washington was a bit wistful during the East-bloc revolutions of 1989. Like a veteran movie star watching other people win Oscars, official Washington felt its joy with a pang, wondering: Where do we fit in?

No more. Washington is back. Wistful is out. After the Persian Gulf war, the question has become: Where will Washington lead in what President Bush has called "the new world order"?

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The Gulf war transformed Washington's sense of place in the world so completely that it has become difficult to recall the sense of decline that suffused the city during the late 1980s.

With the cold war ending on Western terms, the Berlin Wall falling, and the East bloc opening up like church doors at noon, the news was certainly good.

But the news was not in Washington. It was in Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, and Bucharest. The prime mover of the world's most exciting events lived in Moscow. The talk in Washington was of collegiality and burden-sharing with the new powers on the block, Japan and Germany.

Just a year ago, a front-page story in The Washington Post set out the state of affairs under this headline: "Nation's Capital in Eclipse as Pride and Power Slip Away."

That feeling was most palpable to the people who take calls from journalists, like Stephen Hess, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It was felt most strongly among foreign correspondents," he says. "Two years ago, they felt they had been assigned to a backwater" in coming to Washington.

Yoriyoshi Naito, Washington bureau chief of Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper, has seen interest from his Tokyo editors in Washington news rise dramatically since the invasion of Kuwait. Now Americans have "shown they are the superpower of the world," he says.

Interest is higher now in US relations with the Soviets, in what Americans can achieve in the Middle East peace process, "and probably a new kind of leadership or hegemony by the US," says Mr. Naito.

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He also notes that Japan, an up-and-coming rival to Washington's leadership, was dissatisfied with its world role during the Gulf confrontation. In seeking a new world role, Naito adds, Japan will begin by seeking a summit meeting with President Bush as soon as possible.

In Washington, attitudes have shifted from a sense of helplessness and frustration at the US ability to influence events to a sense that the US is both the political and military leader of a world with some new and intriguing opportunities.

Beyond the new alignments in the Middle East and the prospect of a free-trade zone in the Western hemisphere, the promise of Bush's "new world order" remains a bit out of focus. But as long as it includes a modicum of order, Washington will be at its center of gravity.

As one indicator, President Bush was on network television news 50 percent more often in 1990 than 1989, according to the Center for the Media and Public Affairs.

At the Brookings Institution, mother of all think tanks, recent months have seen a growing surge of television crews from around the world seeking the view from Washington. Director of communications Stanley Wellborn recalls lunch three years ago with a friend from another think tank and mourning the sense of stagnation here.

"It was like all the things that were going on in the world, all the intellectual stimulation, was somewhere else."

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