GEORGE BUSH and Mikhail Gorbachev have met before, but today's mini-summit represents the sharpest break yet with the Cold War period, when Moscow and Washington were invariably on opposite sides.

The Helsinki meeting is also the first with a Soviet Union that no longer has any illusions of being a superpower. No one doubts that, as far as the current confrontation with Iraq is concerned, America is in the driver's seat, while the U.S.S.R. oscillates between offering to mediate and playing a supporting role in the U.S.-led campaign against Saddam Hussein. At week's end, Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov was calling for U.N. military action against its one-time ally.

The removal of the Soviet Union as a constant foreign policy roadblock provides the United States with unprecedented room for geopolitical maneuver. During past conflicts in the Middle East, policymakers in Washington had to think about possible Soviet countermoves. Jimmy Carter's reluctance to use military force against the Khomeini regime during the 1980 hostage crisis, for example, can only be understood by taking into account his concern over pushing Iran closer to the Soviet Union.

Since Gorbachev is the founding father of the new Soviet thinking, there is a tendency in the West to identify changes in Moscow's international performance almost exclusively with the Soviet president. George Bush would do well to avoid this. It is true enough that, in contrast to domestic politics, where Gorbachev is increasingly responding to events, the Soviet leader still has operational control in the foreign policy field. He gives the orders to move troops, issues diplomatic directives and conducts key negotiations like today's session with Bush.

However, there is much more to the Soviet Union's international conduct than Gorbachev's preferences. Whatever the Soviet president's political fortunes, his country will not return to its pattern of using force as a means of global diplomacy -- or not any time soon. Valentin Falin, Communist Party Central Committee Secretary for International Affairs, recently put it this way: "Not everybody agrees with Gorbachev's tactics, for instance, in the case of Germany; but the new strategic directions of our foreign policy introduced by him have a wide support across the Soviet political spectrum." According to Yuri Schekotikhin, a leading columnist and member of the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies, Gorbachev's decision to position the U.S.S.R. on the U.S. side in the conflict with Iraq received nearly unanimous public approval. "Maybe some Pamyat supporters are unhappy," he said, referring to the antisemitic radical group, "but we do not hear much from them on the Persian Gulf issue." It is striking how little attraction the U.S.S.R.'s superpower status seems to have for the vast majority of Soviet citizens, who are far more absorbed by the hardships of everyday life. Public-opinion polls suggest that, in contrast to the mixed reaction to changes in Eastern Europe, no segment of the Soviet population opposes the diminution of Moscow's Third World involvements. The prevailing sentiment is that these commitments wasted precious resources and spoiled relations with the West -- yet offered no real rewards.

The Soviet legislature is sensitive to the public mood. There is a growing desire among Soviet parliamentarians to reduce aid to Third World dependencies, and drastic cuts are incorporated in the radical economic reform program prepared by a group of economic advisers jointly appointed by Gorbachev and his principal partner-rival, the chairman of the Russian Republic's parliament, Boris Yeltsin.

These doubts about ties to the Third World extend to the past -- whether the Soviet Union had been on the right side in earlier conflicts. "Of course, Soviet military assistance strengthens the independence of young nations," wrote an influential foreign policy analyst, Andrei Kortunov, in the newspaper Trud. "But it also contributed, in some cases, to the deformation of their political development, excessive influence for the military and the militarization of the social life as a whole." Vitaly Korotich, editor-in-chief of the popular weekly Ogonyok (in a recent appearance on the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour") explained Soviet opposition to the Iraqi aggression as "repentance for us for Afghanistan, for Czechoslovakia, for many things when we were not right." After more than 70 years of totalitarian rule, the Soviet people these days have little admiration for foreign rulers who bring to mind such home-grown tyrants as Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev.

In contrast to Weimar Germany, to which the Gorbachev U.S.S.R. is sometimes compared, foreign policy retreats have been largely determined by the Kremlin itself rather than imposed -- either by opponents from within or enemies from without. Unlike the Nazis in the 1920s, Russian nationalist fanatics sound isolationist and nativist rather than expansionist and universalist. Even on the fringes of Soviet politics, there appear to be no forces articulating messianic ideas that are comparable to those of Bolshevism and Nazism. And if nationalist zealots and nostalgic elements of the declining party-military elite criticize Gorbachev & Co. for making too many concessions to the West, their opposition is not translated into a desire to resume Soviet global activism. On the contrary, there is the tendency to blame "imperialist" and "Zionist" subversive influences for Moscow's previous unpopular geopolitical exploits, including the invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union is going through a virtual revolution, and revolutions are known for their rapid swings in popular mood. One can imagine several directions for this one: a linear progression along perestroika's path (toward democracy and market economy); a conservative regime, espousing some blend of Stalinist-nationalist ideology; a split -- like Austria-Hungary in 1918 -- into several sovereign states, sliding into anarchy and perhaps civil war; or some combination of the above. Whatever the outcome, transition to a new order will be prolonged and painful, leaving little energy for a restoration of superpower status. Those who want to rebuild Soviet imperial greatness dream that the army will offer salvation. "My dear army, all my hopes are once again with you," declared a self-described patriot, Felix Chuyev.

But the crisis in the Soviet system has affected the military which has been central to Moscow's one-dimensional superpower status. Even if Moscow maintains its nuclear capabilities, conventional forces are more important in terms of geopolitical leverage -- and these forces are declining. As one young general told me, "The old army based on conscripts and controlled by party apparatchiks is becoming null and void. Any effort to preserve it intact would be an exercise in futility." Gorbachev, after considerable hesitation, admitted as much last month in Odessa, when he said that "perhaps the time has come to move toward a voluntary professional army." The Soviet president, responding to centrifugal pressures tearing his nation apart, has also acknowledged that the armed forces should consist primarily of "national-territorial units" which would have a dual subordination: to Moscow and to the republics from which their members are recruited.

Today, 13 out of 15 Soviet republics have passed declarations of sovereignty. Some of them, including the Ukraine, intend to form their own republican armies. Accordingly, the final shape of the Soviet national army will depend on Gorbachev's success in negotiating a new union treaty with the republics which, among other things, will deal with military restructuring. He may even end up with leaner, meaner and better motivated forces. But this end is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, Moscow has no choice but to focus its troubled military on defensive and internal missions.

Even that may not be easy. Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov complained that last spring, roughly 35 percent of potential conscripts refused to serve. With more and more youth from the Baltic States, Transcaucasian and Slavic urban areas dodging the draft, the Soviet army comes disproportionately from the Central Asian republics, the rural areas and the ranks of the disadvantaged of all sorts. One prominent member of the Soviet parliament, Major Vladimir Lopatin, said that 37 percent of the active-duty soldiers speak poor Russian, 45 percent have mental problems and an ever-growing percentage has criminal records.

Attempts to recruit more Russians have been futile. While Bush met with virtually no opposition when he called up reservists to join U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, Gorbachev -- facing militant demonstrations -- had to give up on mobilizing Russian reservists to handle the violence in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Could an army that is reluctant to fight for Baku and Yerevan be expected to fight for Kabul, Baghdad -- or Havana? As a matter of fact, the military was unable to implement Gorbachev's July 25 decree to disarm armed units, organized in many parts of the Soviet Union. Sergei Witte, the Russian prime minister in the era of Nicholas II, understood the importance of these questions in his time -- and in ours: "What in reality kept the Russian empire afloat? It was not only kept primarily but exclusively by its army," he wrote in his memoirs, going on to say this: "Surely it was not our culture, not our bureaucratized church, not our wealth and prosperity that the world deferred to. It deferred to our power. And when they saw -- with a significant dose of exaggeration -- that we were not as strong as they thought, that Russia was a 'colossus on clay legs,' then the picture changed. Internal and foreign enemies raised their heads and the indifferent began paying no attention to us."

And today, the Mikhail Gorbachev who comes to Helsinki with his army in disarray, his empire disintegrating and his economy on the edge of collapse is no longer the leader of a superpower colossus. Diplomatically and symbolically his being in the same boat with the United States matters a lot. But that is primarily because the international system still responds to the Soviet Union as it was. Sooner or later, though, diplomacy will follow the geopolitical dynamics.

Gorbachev is still able to deliver in Helsinki because his predecessors had constructed a global power network that made it a welcome ally and a formidable rival. Paradoxically, it is unclear what a virtuous Moscow government will be able to contribute if, and when, another Third World crisis pops up.

Dimitri Simes is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.