THE CONTINUING stand-off between Vilnius and Moscow has been a matter of great fascination in the West. It is easy to blame Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for the state of things, and to imagine that he is preparing to abandon his program of democratic reform. It is just as easy to ignore what seems obvious to those of us who remember the past: that Gorbachev's responses to the Lithuanian independence movement are exceptionally mild, and that many of his decisions have been made to satisfy competing political forces in the Soviet Union.

Above all, it is easy now to take for granted the extraordinary changes of the past year, and to forget how much credit for the change belongs to one person -- Gorbachev.

After all, it was Gorbachev who under stood that to free his people at home, he had to end a colonialistic, often inhuman empire abroad. It is also beginning to look as if Gorbachev understands that freeing the Russians or Ukrainians or Armenians cannot be achieved without transforming the Soviet Union itself.

Perhaps it is best to leave the luxury of appreciation to the next generation. What's left to us -- neutral observers, critics and admirers of Gorbachev -- is to adjust attitudes that were forged in the Cold War. That adjustment could begin by adding a Western component to the "new thinking" proclaimed by Gorbachev. Later this week, President Bush will meet with Gorbachev to consider a range of important questions. What better moment to consider a new kind of controlling principle -- namely that their two nations can begin building a new world not by counting tanks and missiles but by evaluating how morally each side can behave in its new incarnation.

No doubt that sounds awfully naive. But even a fleeting analysis of recent events suggests that the West is not prepared to be guided consistently by morality. To take one example: The legality of the invasion of Panama may be debatable, but the violation of the principle of non-intervention is clear. But that principle seems to be discarded rather easily in regard to countries that the United States has traditionally treated as its own backyard.

The Panama invasion triggered criticism from liberal observers that was remarkable only for its scantiness. The general lack of outrage over the U.S. invasion of a sovereign state does not speak well of the morality of government decision-makers -- or the public that judges them. It is not difficult to envision the outpouring of liberal rage that would have followed a similar American action in, say, Nicaragua. But the thinking seems to be that our shoot-'em-up style is okay -- as long as we're shooting at a real bad guy like Noriega.

Does this example seem far afield? It was precisely the Panama invasion that provided Gorbachev with the opportunity to serve as a moral instructor -- not through words but through example. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the State Department condescended to invite the Soviet Union to join the club, so to speak. It practically suggested that the Soviets invade Romania to achieve Soviet ends there as America had done in Panama.

What was Gorbachev's response to this invitation to militarism abroad? None at all. He simply ignored the chance to play ball with the big boys and even resisted what must have been a temptation to find fault with this perverted ghost of the Brezhnev Doctrine. The United States was "generous enough" to allow the Soviets into the game; the Soviets were ethical enough to stay on the sidelines.

There is a lot to learn from this morality lesson of Gorbachev's.

The question of national morality extends to the German reunification issue. Bush's position that a unified Germany must be part of NATO demonstrates an inability to moderate an attitude that seemed reasonable in the Cold War but has become anachronistic when wielded against the man who was mainly responsible for the demise of the Berlin Wall. In fact, this insistence on a unified Germany as a member of NATO does nothing so much as push Gorbachev into a corner in spite of his many problems. Is that its purpose? Or have U.S. policymakers forgotten how much Russian and East European blood was spilled to fight Germany in World War II?

To suggest now that Germany be part of the Western military bloc is, at the very least, inconsiderate in the extreme. And that leaves aside the questionable idea of wanting a unified Germany to be a member of any military bloc.

Developing this sort of moral restraint will be difficult. After all, we can no longer justify every excess by citing the devious machinations of the Evil Empire. Nor can we count on the morality of the U.S. president, as has been demonstrated by Bush's covert flirtation with China soon after the Tiananmen Square massacre -- and his willingness now to return China to most favored nation status.

The Baltic question is especially perplexing because the interests of the republics and the state appear to be in such conflict. But for Gorbachev, the great test will be to convince the potential breakaway republics that he, too, believes that sovereignty is inevitable -- and to convince them that they should work with him to achieve their goals. Gorbachev's restraint so far suggests that this course is possible.

It will be a bittersweet pill to swallow that, at long last -- even as some Western politicians condemn Soviet pressures in the Baltics -- we have something to learn from the Soviet Union in the realm of morality. It will mean finally abandoning the assumption -- so long justified -- that any Soviet action is ipso facto immoral and in pursuance of a condemnable ulterior motive. Indeed, as Gorbachev and many of his fellow Eastern Europeans have proven over and over again, we may have to start looking east for the best examples of courageous, activist morality.

This should not be seen as a tragedy. The West should be big enough not only to be a moral example, but also to follow one.

Valery Chalidze, a former Soviet physicist and a founder of the Moscow Human Rights Committee, was exiled to the West in 1972 for his human rights activity. Lisa Chalidze is a lawyer and writer.