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World View : A Moscow Shift Toward the West : * The coup may speed the trend to global ties based less on ideology and more on geography.


WASHINGTON — Over the past four decades, those who spoke of East-West tensions in the world meant the bitter Cold War rivalry between Moscow and Washington. But both last week's failed coup in the Soviet Union and a series of recent developments in Asia may presage a different set of East-West divisions in international politics--between a Japan-led Asia on the one hand and the United States and Western Europe, with Moscow as their new partner, on the other.

Since the end of World War II, ideology has been the touchstone of East-West divisions. But if present political trends continue, over the next decade or so those divisions may be based more upon geography and culture.

What are these trends? First, the Soviet Union--or its Russian replacement--appears likely to identify increasingly with Western Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, on a surprising number of issues, Asian countries have recently begun to band more closely together--often in opposition to Western Europe and the United States.

The result could be a changed world in which regions and historical traditions matter much more in determining a nation's foreign policy than they have in the past 40 years, and in which economic systems matter much less.

The principal dividing issues are democracy and human rights, and the extent to which these political goals are linked inextricably to economic advancement. "The verdict is still out in Asia," observes James Clad of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Authoritarian traditions have existed quite nicely along with economic success."

For now, these trends toward geographic divisions seem to be gradual. And there are forces in the reverse direction. For example, the economic and security links between the United States and Japan may prompt both countries to resist any breakdown of the world into regional or geographic groupings. Similarly, continent-straddling Russia has important economic links to Asia.

Still, last week's failed coup is seen by many analysts as having accelerated an already pronounced trend toward Moscow's identification with Europe and the West.

Symbolically, at his first press conference after his release, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev went out of his way to pay respects to the foreign leaders who had telephoned and supported him: President Bush, French President Francois Mitterrand, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and British Prime Minister John Major, in that order. (Japan, the world's second-leading economic power, was also mentioned, but only later--after Canada and Australia.)

Gorbachev also specially thanked the British Broadcasting Corp. and the United States' Radio Liberty and Voice of America for keeping him informed while he was being detained. It was an astonishing admission of his reliance on the British and American broadcasting services, which have long sought to disseminate Western political ideals.

The record suggests that the Russian Federation's newly empowered president, Boris N. Yeltsin, may in some ways be an even greater champion of a European orientation than is Gorbachev.

"Russia should return to Europe, where it has been for 1,000 years," Yeltsin declared last year, on the day after his election as president of the Russian republic. He was careful to add that Russia "should be a bridge between Europe and Asia"--but even these words seem to suggest that Yeltsin does not consider Russia to be part of Asia.

Whereas Gorbachev's foreign policy has included efforts at reconciliation with both China and Japan, Yeltsin and his Russian Federation have showed signs of resistance to the Soviets' new Asia policies.

Last year, as Gorbachev began to explore the possibility of returning to Japan some of the Kuril Island chain (which Soviet troops occupied after World War II), Yeltsin voiced opposition, invoking Russian nationalism. "It is inconceivable that we would sell the Kurils, for whatever sum, like we once did Alaska," he said in a French television interview. "The Russian people wouldn't stand for it."

Now, in the days since the Soviet coup failed, U.S. officials and analysts say Japan seems to be the strongest opponent among the world's major industrialized nations of new economic aid to Moscow. (The Bush Administration has also expressed some resistance to suggestions that it boost aid, insisting that until Moscow adopts clear economic reforms, it would be premature to offer added help.)

At the same time, European leaders such as Kohl have pressed for a new international effort to provide financial help to the Soviet Union.

As for China, from the time of his inaugural speech as Communist Party leader in 1985, Gorbachev made improving ties with Beijing one of the top priorities in his foreign policy. Despite their ideological differences, Gorbachev re-established the ties broken three decades ago between the Soviet and Chinese Communist parties.

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