It's not just on the plains of Europe that the Cold War is winding down. From Syria to Nicaragua and Ethiopia to Vietnam, the Soviet Union is pulling back. Bent on saving money and removing burrs from its relations with Washington, Moscow is pushing client states toward conciliation more often than conflict these days.
"It seems clear that (Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A.) Shevardnadze is trying to manage a general retreat around the globe," said Harry Gelman, a senior Soviet analyst at RAND Corp. in Santa Monica. "He just wants it to be much more gradual than in Eastern Europe, where it's been a rout."
For the United States, the new Soviet policy means fewer potential flash points around the globe. While smaller ethnic and nationalistic conflicts may proliferate in the Third World, the combatants are less likely to be Soviet and U.S. proxies.
"They are not interested in global gunboat diplomacy anymore," said one U.S. analyst, citing the partial withdrawal of Soviet ships and planes from Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay. Initially, the Soviets offered to trade those pullbacks for U.S. withdrawal from bases in the Philippines, but when Washington showed no interest, Moscow acted unilaterally.
Underlying the Soviet pullback, Gelman and other experts say, is the declining role of ideology as a force behind Soviet foreign policy. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has stressed that under his "new political thinking," economic class conflict is no longer the primary prism through which Moscow sees the world.
This means that the Soviets no longer intend to support "wars of national liberation" and other struggles they once labeled "anti-colonial." Those phrases are used in Moscow now only when they are renounced.
In Nicaragua, though recent elections threw its Sandinista allies out of office, Moscow publicly welcomed the outcome. And, while Gorbachev shows no signs of dumping Cuba, the Soviet press has attacked Fidel Castro--who owes Moscow $25 billion for past aid--for wasting money and suppressing democratic movements.
In Namibia, the Soviets joined the United States in brokering the deal last month that freed it from neighboring South Africa after years of bloody conflict. The superpowers have also succeeded in reducing foreign involvement in the civil war in Angola.
In the Mideast, the Soviets have trimmed support to such old friends as Syria, while moving toward diplomatic relations with Israel.
In Southeast Asia, the Soviets are helping push for a settlement in Cambodia and reducing aid to Vietnam. They also have passed up opportunities to get involved in new disputes, such as supporting guerrillas in the Philippines.
The road ahead won't be entirely smooth, U.S. officials and private scholars predict. The Soviets are continuing their economic and military support for the government of Afghanistan against U.S.-backed insurgents. And the Kremlin is mounting a determined effort to build diplomatic and economic bridges to many developing nations.
"The Soviets see the need to be welcomed in many parts of the world in order to justify their claim to superpower status," one official said. "Part of their new strategy toward the Third World is to court some nations that were previously shunned as right-wing dictatorships," such as Chile, South Korea and Persian Gulf sheikdoms.
American analysts also are concerned that its dire economic problems could tempt Moscow to sell more surplus arms--weapons cut unilaterally or in arms control treaties--to developing nations for hard currency and political influence.
Possible arms sales aside, Gorbachev has essentially declared that domestic economic reform is more important than foreign policy, and seeks a more tranquil international environment in which to make his revolution at home. The Third World promises to be a calmer place as a result.