HOUSTON -- This16th annual summit of the Big Seven has been unlike any of the others. I feel safe in saying that after having covered 15 of the 16, back to the start in Rambouillet, France, in 1975.

Since then, there has been a gradual evolution of the summit process away from a singular focus on economic issues toward political themes. This is easy to understand: it's hard to get seven politicians in a room and expect that they will stray far from issues bearing on their own prospects for reelection or control of the political system at home.

But the Houston Economic Summit, the first to recognize the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, transformed itself into a major geopolitical forum. "The world is changing very fast," President Bush told reporters at the end of the summit. At earlier summits, political matters were reserved for dinners and informal conversation. At Houston, political issues made their way into the plenary sessions.

Except for a successful effort to prevent the collapse of talks between the United States and Europe on farm subsidies (a trade issue normally not a high-priority topic for heads of government), Houston was not really an economic meeting at all. It did not deal in depth, at the presidential/prime ministerial level, with the topics that preoccupy finance ministers, such as exchange-rate stability, inflation and the international effort at coordinating policies. These topics got minimum attention here from Bush and the other leaders, and their pro forma citation in the summit communique represents primarily the months-long discussions among the "sherpas" -- the summit preparers.

No, the main issue preoccupying Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Toshiki Kaifu, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, Giulio Andreotti and Jacques Delors concerned someone who wasn't here: Mikhail Gorbachev. The question on the oval summit table at Houston's Rice University was how to deal with the Soviet Union in the post-Cold War era. What steps could be taken to nudge the Soviet Union more securely into the mode of an economy focused on free market principles?

West Germany, supported by France, wants to extend immediate and considerable cash aid to Gorbachev. From the West German perspective, almost no price is too high to pay for Gorbachev's consent to full and complete unification with East Germany, with the greater Germany to be tucked comfortably into NATO.

The Germans have already put up $3 billion in credits to help Soviet borrowers pay their old bills to German companies, and visualize a package of about $15 billion all told. A German spokesman put it succinctly: "We spent tremendous sums to protect the Western world from Soviet expansionism. Now we need only a very small part of that sum to develop positive movement within the Soviet Union and its neighbors. We consider it a first-class investment."

If the notoriously super-cautious Germans favor pouring money into the Soviet Union, it must make sense, right? Absolutely not, say Bush, and his summit advisers, James A. Baker III and Nicholas Brady. The United States was strongly supported by Japan -- which will shower money on China but won't advance a nickel to the Soviet Union until it returns the Kurile Islands, swiped from Japan at the end of World War II.

The summit compromise was important and innovative: the Germans are free to lend their cash to Gorbachev, and the summit nations as a group will launch a study, managed by the International Monetary Fund with other international institutions, of the Soviet Union's real economic and financial conditions. This makes sense. It allows Gorbachev an immediate infusion of cash from the Germans and provides him with the dialogue with the West that he has been ardently seeking -- and that may lead to further aid.

Last year, before the Paris Economic Summit, Gorbachev virtually applied for membership in the G-7 group in a letter to Mitterrand. This year, he was more circumspect, asking in a letter to Bush for "external financial and economic help," especially "long-term credits, which should be provided by foreign capital." By responding to Gorbachev in a measured but substantive way, the West has taken the first step toward integrating the Soviet Union, as well as the former satellite members of the Warsaw Pact, into the global economy.

Last year's communique, in response to Gorbachev's plea, brushed him off: "We take note of the representations that we received from various heads of State or Government and organizations, and we will study them with interest." But the communique issued here reflects changing times: "The Host Government will convey to the Soviet Union the results of the Houston Summit."

So communication is underway. As the economic summit evolves into a broad dialogue on political, strategic, environmental and economic issues, it is possible that it may also become a global high command, involving not only the Western powers, but the Soviet Union, China and former satellite countries.

At Rambouillet in 1975, in the midst of the Cold War, the idea of a global high command would have been unthinkable. But after the NATO summit last weekend extending a cooperative instead of hostile hand to the Soviet Union, and after the economic summit here, it is at least thinkable.