How 1983 could bring US and USSR closer
World affairs during 1983 are going to be shaped and influenced by subtle changes taking place in the relations of the various powers and nations toward one another.
The United States and the Soviet Union will be less free to pursue their preferred courses. Western Europe and China will exercise increasing influence, usually for restraint, on the superpowers.
The net effect of collective pressures from Western Europe on both Moscow and Washington may well be a renewed willingness by the two superpowers to seek accommodations with each other over nuclear weapons.
The net effect of China's new middleman role between Moscow and Washington may be to temper Soviet activities in Asia. Moscow wants ''normal'' relations with Peking. To get them, Moscow will have to reduce to some degree its support for and encouragement of Vietnam.
Moscow may also seek a new formula for its relations with Afghanistan. Complete withdrawal of Soviet troops from that unhappy country seems unlikely. Yet the Soviet presence there is deeply disturbing to China, India, and Pakistan.
In order to keep the goodwill of India, gain ''normal'' relations with China, and calm the worries of Pakistan, the Soviets will probably have to repeat in Afghanistan, more successfully if possible, a version of what was called ''Vietnamization,'' the term used when the US decided to reduce its role in Vietnam.
At the turn of the year Western Europe and China are both still closer to the US than to Moscow. The NATO alliance is still an active organization and its military power remains impressive and intact. And China makes no secret of its desire for the high technology it can get only from the West. It is not likely to turn back to its alliance with the Soviets of 1949 to 1958.
Yet the NATO relationship went through a sea change during the affair of the pipeline sanctions. It is not the same thing now that it was a year ago before President Reagan tried, unsuccessfully, to coerce the allies into canceling their contracts for building the gas pipeline from Siberia to their own homes and factories.
The probability is that in 1983 the NATO capitals in Europe will exert more influence on Washington than Washington will be able to exert on the European capitals.
The same kind of sea change took place in Sino-American relations after President Reagan insisted, in January of 1982, on continuing to sell weapons to Taiwan. According to Washington the weapons are defensive only and should not concern mainland China. But the weapons were enough to give China the occasion, or pretext, for publicly and officially moving into a less committed and more flexible position between Washington and Moscow.
Because of these two sea changes of 1982 the new year will open with China in a position to bargain with Moscow. It had no bargaining position when in a state of hostility with the Soviets. Now there is a dialogue within which China can offer and receive - and consider - counteroffers. This in turn gives it more leverage in Washington.
In the NATO relationship the biggest single change arises from the fact that the European allies discovered during the pipeline affair that they can work out a common European policy and prevail. This was the first time the European allies collectively and openly adopted positions contrary to the wishes of Washington. They declined to join in a general policy of economic pressures on Moscow. The effort to get one will continue to strain the alliance in 1983.
An even greater strain will be put on alliance unity over the planned deployment of the new American intermediate-range missiles (Pershing II and cruise) in Europe. It was agreed among the allies in 1979 that this deployment will begin in 1983 unless in the meantime agreement is reached with the Soviets over theater nuclear forces in Europe. The prime desire of West Europeans today is for an agreement that will obviate the new weapons. The West Europeans will see more merit in the Soviet's bargaining position than Washington is likely to find.
Probably the West Europeans will not want to institutionalize their new condition. But the reality will be that Western Europe will tend increasingly to think and act for itself and will increasingly negotiate as an entity both with Moscow and with Washington.
West European influence has already helped tone down the Washington attitude toward Central America. The area will continue to be far from settled and pacified during 1983, but the chances are against new US military operations. Washington now supports insurgents trying to destabilize the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, but the priority for the area has become the financial and economic salvation of Mexico.
Africa settled down substantially during 1982 and is likely to continue in the same direction during the next year. American diplomacy is making apparent progress toward some sort of accommodation between South Africa and Angola. An agreement for reducing the number of Cuban troops is possible.
The world is far from what could be called a stable condition. Desultory fighting continues between Iran and Iraq, also in Kampuchea. Guerrilla warfare is chronic between South Africa and black nationalists. But the only persistent and serious challenge to existing frontiers which might engage great powers in a confrontation in 1983 is in the Middle East. There, Israel is trying to incorporate the whole of the West Bank and Gaza into its own territory, and also keep a grip on southern Lebanon.
This outward pressure by Israel will make more headlines during 1983. President Reagan in Washington is trying to keep Camp David alive. His recent peace plan amounts to a revival and redefinition of Camp David. If he puts real pressure behind his plan, it is conceivable that he may back the Israelis into accepting some form of Palestinian autonomy. The West Europeans will be encouraging and helping as much as possible in that direction. The Middle East is probably the prime danger spot for 1983.
Eruptions are always possible in the Soviet imperial system. But with the successful suppression of Solidarity in Poland, the chances are that those people imprisoned against their will inside the Soviet system have another year of imprisonment ahead. There is no sign of what could be called a pre-revolutionary condition anywhere in the Soviet system today.
So, the prospect for 1983 is for relative stability everywhere, except in the Middle East.