MIKHAIL Gorbachev earned the Nobel Peace Prize the old-fashioned way -- by taking major concrete steps toward peace. This is something different in Nobels, which in recent decades have commonly been given to honor valiant efforts that have fallen short. This time the reward comes less as encouragement than as judgment. The Soviet president's achievement makes this so.

It is early for the historians to pronounce on the alchemy of the '80s that resulted in the transformation of relationships between the superpowers and the liberation of states of Central and Eastern Europe. It is evident, however, that the Soviet side had the farthest distance to go. When Ronald Reagan reported in 1988 that he no longer regarded the Soviet Union as the "evil empire," he was not so much changing his mind as registering the developments set in motion by Mikhail Gorbachev. For the American it was a relatively effortless change. For the Soviet it was an extremely difficult one, since he had to rethink the basic Kremlin position from zero. He had to discover and confess that the whole philosophy, based on an elite's forcible monopoly of power, that the Soviet Union had followed for 70 years was, yes, evil and harmful. He had come to see that the Cold War was not essentially the product of mutual misperception or misexecution. It was made in Moscow, and once things changed there, they started changing almost everywhere.

Back in Moscow, Mr. Gorbachev is struggling with reform. Like some other chief executives, he has found foreign policy more amenable to top-down direction and more productive of visible results than the domestic wars. Witnessing his travail, many foreigners wonder if he is not a burnout case and ask hopefully whether the Nobel might pick him up. Don't count on it, but don't count him out either. Not just his evident courage and political skill but the leap of imagination he made in finding another, better way for the Soviet Union to be secure makes that premature.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can take immense comfort in the course of events he launched by renouncing the use of force to prop up minority puppet regimes in East Europe -- the key move -- and by otherwise acting on a vision of mutual security and benefit across the East-West line. That he had his own good reasons -- to tend, with Western help, to an overwhelming general crisis at home -- makes it the more possible for the West to extend cooperation across a line that he has done more than anyone else to erase.