When U.S. warplanes raided Libya, a lot of nervous Americans and Europeans no doubt asked themselves what the Soviet response would be. After all, Moscow has provided at least $10 billion worth of military equipment to Libya since 1970, and an estimated 2,000 Soviet military advisers were in harm's way when the American planes struck.
As it turned out, the Soviets took some face-saving diplomatic moves, including the cancellation of a scheduled meeting between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze. And there was some sharp rhetoric from Kremlin boss Mikhail S. Gorbachev. But Soviet military forces did not move in to protect Libya.
It would be unwise to assume that Moscow will exercise the same kind of restraint if a similar challenge occurs in a place of greater importance to Soviet pride and national security. In recent months, however, Western analysts think that they have seen signs of a more cautious, less adventurous Soviet approach to involvement in the Third World.
The new program adopted at the 27th Communist Party Congress in February expressed the Soviet Union's "profound sympathy" for countries fighting "the heavy and demeaning yoke of colonial servitude." But it put "socialist-oriented" regimes, a formulation that refers to pro-Soviet Marxist governments in places like Angola and Ethiopia, on notice that they must develop their economies "mainly through their own efforts."
That is a far cry from the language of the previous party program, adopted in 1961 when Nikita S. Khrushchev was the head honcho in Moscow. That document exuberantly proclaimed that "a mighty wave of national-liberation revolutions is sweeping away the colonial system," and promised help to so-called national wars of liberation.
The Soviets indeed went on a roll in the 1970s, when the United States was demoralized by the Vietnam debacle. The decade saw the birth of new Marxist-led regimes in Cambodia and Laos, Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia, Grenada, Nicaragua, South Yemen and Afghanistan.
These client states voted consistently for Soviet positions in international forums, and in several cases provided the Russians with facilities that helped to give Soviet military power a global reach.
As Francis Fukuyama of the Rand Corp. observed in Foreign Affairs, however, the Soviets eventually discovered that there was a downside to their seeming Third World successes.
The United States became increasingly unwilling to accept the Soviet definition of detente, under which Moscow felt free to support anti-Western revolts while simultaneously pursuing arms control and advantageous trade relations.
President Jimmy Carter managed not to get too excited about Soviet adventurism in Angola and Ethiopia, but the invasion of Afghanistan shocked him into inaugurating a rearmament program. It also killed chances for Senate ratification of the second strategic arms limitation treaty, and helped smooth the way for the election of Ronald Reagan and his harder line.
Meanwhile, the economic cost of the growing Soviet empire also became burdensome. According to one expert estimate, the total bill for economic and military aid and various kinds of subsidies mushroomed to more than $46 billion by 1980--this at a time when the Soviet economy was coming under strain.
Gorbachev, building on a reassessment that began even before he was elevated to the top job, clearly seems to be giving top priority to the rejuvenation of the economy.
There is no reason to believe that Gorbachev is willing to walk away from the enormously expensive Soviet commitments to Cuba, Vietnam and the Moscow-sponsored government of Afghanistan. But there is plenty of reason to suspect that he wants to avoid new commitments, that he would prefer a period of consolidation during which existing clients will not be allowed to trigger major confrontations with the United States.
In cases where the new clients of the 1970s are so inept as to become an embarrassment to "socialism," the Soviets may even be willing to cut them loose. This may have happened already in Mozambique.
Soviet decisions are not made in a vacuum, however. The big unknown is how Kremlin policies and politics will be affected by the surge of "Ramboism" in the Reagan Administration.
Historically, Marxist-Leninists have insisted that once a country comes under Communist control it cannot be allowed to slide back into the "capitalist" or "imperialist" orbit. That ideological imperative, enshrined in the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine after the crushing in 1968 of Czechoslovakia's experiment with a more democratic form of communism, is coming under severe challenge.