It no longer makes sense to think of the Soviet Union as a great power -- its large and lingering nuclear arsenal aside. Almost everyone agrees on that. But there is a reluctance to go the next step and to recognize that it is truly a country of the Third World.

The key signs are there: The economy is state-controlled and failing. Politics is a debilitating struggle between those who would impose one or another version of stability from the top and those would give more play to the forces -- some democratic, some benighted -- welling up from the bottom. Ethnic or tribal tensions scream. Foreign policy is in retreat from any effort to take a substantial part in a world design and focuses instead on improving access to foreign investment and aid.

It would be encouraging if sounder leadership -- Washington's usual recipe for whatever ails anybody -- were the answer. Increasingly, however, efforts to advance economic reform and political democratization are seen to come to grief on immutable facts of the national history.

George Kennan writes in Foreign Affairs that he "surely is not alone in noting a certain comparative brutalization in the faces one now encounters on the Moscow streets -- a result, no doubt, of long exposure to not only the exactions of a pitiless dictatorship but also the ferocious petty frictions of daily life in a shortage economy." Soviets themselves speak of a depletion of the genetic pool.

To Americans, who were just beginning to get accustomed to treating the Soviets as an equal of sorts and as a political partner, it comes as something of a shock to recognize that the new hard-won lesson of global parity has a half life of about three months. The date is somewhat arbitrarily chosen, but it was just last September at their Helsinki summit that George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev stepped into what seemed like the enchanted circle of a new, jointly fashioned world order.

Now, in the Gulf anyway and inferentially elsewhere, it is evident that whatever result is coming will arrive strictly as a result of American (and, in the Gulf, Iraqi) decision. The crush of domestic crisis has sidelined Mikhail Gorbachev and his country indefinitely in world affairs. Americans find themselves dealing not in the first instance with a partner in politics but with a petitioner for aid. The Kremlin's Gulf "contribution" comes down to allowing Bush the liberty of moving military units from Europe without fear of European consequences.

Europeans seem to have adjusted quite easily to the Soviet Union's transition to Third World status, which they describe as a transition back, after 70 years, to European status. This is the basis on which Soviets suddenly become the beneficiary of a powerful charitable surge in Europe. News reports tell of widespread citizen as well as government involvement in aid meant to get Moscow through the winter. In Germany, where a particularly strong charitable impulse feeds off several different sets of German feelings for Slavs, contributions to real Third World causes are said to be down by a calamitous 95 percent.

At least during this holiday season, European and even official American thoughts of conditioning aid on Soviet internal reform are dissolving in compassion and international fellowship. A pseudo-tough logic is being put forth to explain the necessity and the advantage to the West of bailing out the Soviet Union, consolidating its new peaceful policy and keeping Gorbachev afloat by philanthropic gifts.

This has in it the makings of multi-level disaster. Aid without reform or, to project the matter on a truer and larger scale, investment without reform ensures the waste of aid and the dissipation of investment -- results that guarantee that the Western flows will be cut back or off.

Worse, the impetus of reform within the Soviet Union will be blunted as reform advocates are deprived of the crucial argument that reformers always need in order to win the internal debate -- the argument that there is no alternative to the pain of reform. Surely this is the message of experience accumulated in the Third World.

How unhelpful that the urge to turn from politics to philanthropy in respect to the Soviet Union should begin to pulse in the West just as four international agencies, representing the West's best collective judgment in the matter of Soviet economic development, commend the contrary virtues of discipline, balance and eventual solvency. There this Third World country's best hope surely lies.