In his vision of U.S.-Soviet relations in the post-Cold War era, President Bush on Tuesday raised the prospect of a historic partnership with the Soviet Union--a shared responsibility for forging "a new world order" out of the superpowers' unprecedented cooperation in the Persian Gulf.
But the President's words masked a deeper reality: With Moscow increasingly crippled by internal problems and unable to play the role of full and equal partner, the United States is emerging as the single greatest power in a multipolar world.
Though constrained by economic problems of its own, Washington now may enjoy a greater freedom of action in foreign affairs than at any time since the end of World War II.
"This is a multipolar world," said the Rand Corp.'s senior Soviet analyst, Arnold Horelick, "but in terms of ability to project (military) power in the world, and the political will to project power, it's unipolar. Only the United States can do that today."
Dmitri Simes of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace put it more bluntly: The Persian Gulf crisis, he said, shows that "America is in the driver's seat. . . . The removal of the Soviet Union as a constant foreign policy roadblock provides the United States with unprecedented room for geopolitical maneuver."
Unquestionably, there are still constraints on U.S. freedom of action--not least, economic limitations.
"When you pass the hat around, as the United States is doing for the first time to pay for a massive military operation, you have to accept constraints on your flexibility" by the contributors, Horelick observed. "The Soviet contribution of political support (at the Helsinki summit) gives them a marginal claim to be consulted in the future."
For diplomatic reasons, Bush portrays the new U.S.-Soviet relationship as a partnership.
"We are working together to build a new relationship," Bush told the Congress in reporting on what he called his "very productive meeting" in Finland last weekend with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"A new partnership of nations has begun," he added, referring to the new rapport between formerly bitter enemies and other nations that have joined the anti-Iraq coalition.
Yet the consensus among most analysts is that the partnership is by no means equal.
And, while the drastic restructuring of U.S.-Soviet relations has been under way at least since the Berlin Wall crumbled, the gulf crisis provides graphic evidence of the shift toward American dominance:
Overcoming decades of resistance, the United States quickly won agreement to put forces on the ground in Saudi Arabia, even though the massive deployment is only about 700 miles from the Soviet frontier.
And at the United Nations, it was the United States that forged the almost-unprecedented coalition approving the military move and the economic embargo against Iraq.
In both cases, the Soviets endorsed the moves.
Moscow's support was in striking contrast to its angry objections three years ago at the last U.S. show of force in the region--escorting Kuwaiti tankers through Iranian mine fields.
Some scholars, such as Harvard Prof. Joseph S. Nye Jr., also saw in Gorbachev's apparent "crankiness" at the summit news conference in Helsinki last Sunday another sign that "a very different relationship exists" between the United States and the Soviet Union.
After Bush said Moscow's "remarkable cooperation" inclined him to offer the Soviets "as close cooperation in the economic field as possible," Gorbachev quickly interjected that he "wouldn't want President Bush's reply to give rise to the opinion that the Soviet Union is going to assign a certain sum (of money) with certain behavior. . . .
"It would be very oversimplified and very superficial to judge that the Soviet Union could be bought for dollars," he complained.
Some Soviet scholars contend that the new U.S.-Soviet relationship will depend heavily on how the Gorbachev perestroika revolution turns out. They further argue that the United States cannot remain a "superpower" because the Soviet Union has lost that status. "Superpowerness" requires bipolar confrontation more than sheer economic and military might, they argue.
Nonetheless, the growing authority of the United States relative to the Soviet Union is increasingly apparent in three areas:
Politics and arms control, in which the Soviets have largely accepted U.S.-backed terms for a unified Germany and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from all of East Europe within a few years. Moscow almost openly appeals to Washington to help manage the transition to a democratic society.
Third World confrontations, in which Soviet support for clients from Afghanistan to Angola and Nicaragua has waned remarkably as Moscow scuttled its ideological rationale for backing uch conflicts and as the economic costs became known to the Soviet public.
Economics, with the Soviets seeking U.S. help to repair the shambles in their country, both directly with aid and indirectly through membership in international economic and trade communities.
Only in terms of nuclear weapons does the Soviet Union remain a threat of Cold War proportions. Moscow is still the only nation capable of destroying the United States.
But even in the nuclear realm, it is Moscow's declining strength, not its power, that stirs concern in Washington: the danger that chaos and anarchy could become an uncontrollable threat to international security if Kremlin authorities lose control of the nuclear weapons positioned across the vastness of the Soviet Union.
Indeed, this concern is giving new meaning to arms control negotiations that in other respects seem overtaken by events.
The anticipated START agreement, cutting strategic nuclear weapons as much as 50%, would most likely eliminate the long-range missiles now in non-Russian republics like Kazakhstan, according to Soviet officials.
Similarly, the expected agreement on conventional forces in Europe would probably see the removal of the smaller, tactical nuclear weapons beyond the Ural Mountains, where they would be more secure against breakaway republics, although not necessarily from mutinous Russians in a civil war scenario, these officials indicated.