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Has `Post-Communist Era' Arrived? Brzezinski says US needs fresh ways to talk with, and think about, a changing Soviet state. INTERVIEW: FOREIGN POLICY

TO Zbigniew Brzezinski, all this talk about Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's chances of political survival is beside the point. What really matters, the former national security adviser says, is that the communist system is in a ``terminal crisis'' that will inevitably bring ``unforeseeable but potentially dangerous things.''

Dr. Brzezinski's new book, ``The Grand Failure,'' chronicles what he sees as the birth and death of communism and posits scenarios for the ``post-communist era.''

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In an interview, the Polish-born political scientist discussed how the West should respond to the risks and opportunities posed by this historic development.

``In my judgment,'' Brzezinski said, ``what is needed is some form of East-West dialogue - which could then include American-Soviet dialogue.''

The premise of the discussion would be a ``progressive redefinition of the two alliances,'' NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Such changes would be greater for the latter, he said.

Currently, the two alliances are designed to maintain both an ideological and geopolitical status quo, he says. Under the new order, he foresees alliances that have ``only an external geopolitical function, the maintenance of stability in Europe,'' but which are ``composed of states which internally have maximum freedom of choice.''

``That is the only solution that will permit this process of the decomposition of the communist world to take place peacefully,'' Brzezinski asserts.

As the Bush administration reviews United States policy toward the Soviet Union, some experts have suggested a US-Soviet negotiation on the future of Central Europe.

This would be ``extremely counterproductive,'' producing anxieties and resentment in both East and West Europe, says Brzezinski. Another approach favored by some would be simply to let Eastern Europe fall out of the Soviet grip naturally, as seems to be happening.

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Brzezinski rejects that idea as well, calling it ``too unpredictable.'' The Warsaw Pact, he says, should be continued - though not as an ``enforcer of ideological orthodoxy internally.'' Rather, ``it should only be a preserver of the external status quo, which means existing states, existing borders.

``If Hungary wants to be a pluralistic democracy, if Poland wants to be primarily a Catholic democratic state, let them be. But that should not stand in the way of having a relationship of alliance with the Soviet Union. So in effect we have to move in two planes.

``We have to assist social and economic transformation of communism in Eastern Europe, but at the same time try to create this structure of security.''

Further interview excerpts:

Does the Soviet Union still aim to spread its influence around the world, despite its economic weakness?

There's no doubt that the impulse for greatness, for a great many Russians, was enhanced by the alleged universality of the communist ideology. That, I think, has been stripped away. The question then remains, will their nationalism suffice? The Russians are a great nation. So I think the desire to be No. 1 will probably motivate quite a few great Russians. But I also suspect that right now, very many of them would be also very conscious of the fact that they have a ... long way to go - much longer than they thought.

A few years ago they thought they were riding the crest of history. I think now they know that they are risking sliding into the dustbin of history. That is an egregiously serious preoccupation. This is why Gorbachev can now say with unabashed apocalyptic pessimism: perestroika is our last chance. If it doesn't work, it is the death of socialism.

Will internal difficulties make the Soviets more adventurous militarily?

Basically, no. The reason I feel that way is twofold. One is based on a general knowledge of history. By and large, nations don't go to war when they are in trouble at home. ... The second proposition is a purely Russian one. The Russian foreign policy is assertive and expansive, but prudent and patient.

Should the US be trying to help the Soviets in their reforms?

Yes, if they begin to make systemic changes which would facilitate both their transformation internally and their external participation in the international community. ... But we shouldn't simply rush in a lot of money on the grounds of helping Gorbachev. It would be wasting money. It may in fact delay the needed choices.

Why was Gorbachev's approach to reform so different from China's?

In China, society has always been commercially oriented, on a largely individual basis. In Russia, for decades, commercial activity has been subordinated by the state. In China, you have an external trade organization, especially along the long maritime coast. In Russia, there's been relatively little involvement in world trade, traditionally. So in China, you loosen the bonds somewhat, and perestroika becomes reality. In Russia you loosen the bonds, and there's a vacuum.

So therefore Gorbachev's approach was not a mistake?

Right. I think he was in a very difficult position. I think he realized, and was right in realizing, that if he didn't stimulate glasnost, then perestroika from above wouldn't work - all you would get is a little sloganeering, a little bit of regimented change. ... What he probably didn't expect was the depth to which Stalinism had alienated people, particularly among the non-Russians. Therefore I think he was taken aback by the intensity, not only of the anti-Stalinism but above all by the intensity of national self-definition, which now is a real challenge to the integrity of the Soviet Union - really, the Soviet ``Dis-union.''

How should the US respond to China's economic successes?

I'm in favor of creating maximum opportunities for incorporating China into the Pacific prosperity region. And I think the Chinese have decided to move that way because they've put more emphasis into development of the coastal region. ... It's a very, in some ways, controversial policy. It means the coastal region will develop much more easily than the inland region. But I think it is in our interest to try to attract China, just as it is in our interest to, for example, be responsive to change in Hungary and Poland.

How do you see the Soviets' military situation, in light of communism's decline?

I think the Soviet Union will remain a great military power in the foreseeable future. And it will try to sustain that interest increasingly on the basis of great power nationalism, Russian nationalism.

How should the US respond to this?

That really depends on what they [the Soviets] do. It also depends on how much progress they can make in arms control negotiations. ... But I think precisely because the Soviet Union has become only a one-dimensional world power, only a military power, we have to be very careful not to let them gain the edge in that domain. ... If we offset them [through arms control], then I think we can generally say that we are prevailing in all the other respects.