The crackdown in Lithuania, if consolidated, may in time turn out to be even more significant for the prospects of international order than the Gulf crisis, which has obscured it. As we witnessed the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Germany's first steps toward unification and an apparent Soviet movement toward political pluralism and market economics, there was a fleeting moment when it was possible to believe that history was somehow working inexorably in the direction of some kind of universal peace.

Now the opposite trend is developing. Excessive optimism may be on the verge of being supplanted by an equally excessive pessimism. But the democracies can no longer afford these oscillations between intransigence and conciliation. We need a stable concept of East-West relations -- a concept not based either on personalities or on overly simple historical projections but on a cold analysis of the national interest and of the requirements of the international order.

If the present turn toward autocracy in the Soviet Union succeeds, the world will face a Russian state such as it has not seen in seven decades. It will not be democratic. Nor will it be Stalinist. It will in fact be most similar to czarist Russia. The United States must then ask itself some fundamental questions: What is the future of U.S.-Soviet relations? Are there foreign policy objectives that have to be safeguarded toward the Soviet state even in the face of unpalatable domestic events? What balance, if any, must be struck between coexistence and conversion?

Until recently, the prospect of conversion was the fashionable conviction. Gorbachev was treated as the ultimate guarantor of the eventual triumph of democracy and market economics. "Helping Gorbachev" became the principal objective of policy, overriding all other considerations. In fact, Gorbachev turned out to be less benign, and the reform process proved more complex than conventional wisdom allowed. We must face the fact that despite the West's deeply held preferences, the probable outcome of the Soviet evolution is either chaos or repression or both.

It was always naive to stake East-West relations on the presumed conversion to Western values of a leader whose entire career has been in the leadership of the Communist Party. It would be equally dangerous to treat Gorbachev's recent action as a personal aberration and to base policy on personal disappointments. Leaders are driven by the dynamics of their system and the history of their society. Any realistic policy must be based on these factors.

Gorbachev deserves enormous credit for recognizing the weaknesses of the system in which he was reared and for having sought to remedy them. His decision to permit the collapse of the Soviet satellite orbit in Eastern Europe, the liquidation of the war in Afghanistan and the loosening of domestic tyranny will surely earn him a place in history. These actions, however, can be explained by the need to preserve the essence of the Soviet system in a crisis and not dissipate the dwindling strength in imperialist adventures. No doubt, this is how it was justified to the Soviet military.

Whatever Gorbachev's motives, the process of domestic reform has so far proved elusive. In foreign policy, it was possible to make progress by liquidation; at home there was a need for new structures. There Gorbachev has been torn between the realization that established institutions must be modified and his lifelong commitment to Leninist orthodoxy in government.

The Soviet Union faces three domestic problems: remedying the disastrous state of the Soviet economy, establishing a sense of political legitimacy and dealing with the looming disintegration of the empire founded by Peter the Great some three centuries ago. Gorbachev's dilemma is that the remedies for one set of problems are likely to be incompatible with equally pressing solutions to other problems -- for example, the decentralization needed for economic progress also encourages the drive toward independence in the constituent republics. Above all, the domestic power structure, which must implement reform, is threatened by reform and tends to sabotage it.

That command economies produce stagnation and corruption has become conventional wisdom, even in Communist societies. Still, none has yet succeeded in the painful transition to the market system they all avow. The move toward market economies inevitably evokes the embittered opposition of vested interests while the reformers lack adequate levers of power to impose their views.

A market economy dooms to irrelevance the millions of bureaucrats who establish prices, production, quotas and accountability. When prices are permitted to find their own levels, a period of inflation becomes inevitable, because Communist systems typically have too much money chasing too few goods. And insistence on productivity tends to shut down inefficient enterprises and raise unemployment.

In Eastern Europe, the new leaders were able to use the prestige acquired during the struggle for national freedom to sustain their authority amidst the austerity imposed by the transition to market economics. But in the Soviet Union the vested interests have been elaborated over three generations by an extraordinarily brutal political system.

For a while, Gorbachev tried to circumvent the vested interests -- in the Communist Party, the government administration, the secret police and the military -- by encouraging greater popular participation outside the system. But like previous revolutionaries, he has found that democratic reform has its own momentum independent of the priorities of the leader -- especially if that leader is as closely identified with the previous power structure as Gorbachev. Forced to choose between irrelevance and order, Gorbachev is increasingly opting for discipline and a growing reliance on the traditional Soviet power structure.

This course is all the more tempting to Gorbachev because the historical context for democratization is largely lacking in Russia. Russia never had a church that emphasized a concept of justice independent of temporal authority; it knew no Reformation with its commitment to individual conscience; no Enlightenment that emphasized the power of reason; no age of exploration and no free enterprise that stressed individual economic initiative. So in the Soviet Union, centuries of state control have produced a different set of values; the historic processes of Western Europe become compressed and distorted, dividing the reformist elements into many competing factions and producing phenomena that appear chaotic to a people inexperienced in pluralism.

But the most important problem is that even limited forms of democracy are becoming less and less compatible with the preservation of the existing Russian state within its present borders. Since the time of Peter the Great, the most consistent theme of Russian history has been expansion from the area around Moscow to the center of Europe, the shores of the Pacific, the gates of India and inside the world of Islam. As a result, only about 50 percent of the population of the Soviet Union is Russian. Moreover, the subject populations have always been governed from the center and by representatives of the center; little effort was made to create an indigenous leadership group with emotional ties to the imperial power.

Having loosened the reins, Gorbachev is reaping the whirlwind of centuries of imperial misrule. Even limited democratization produces demands for independence in many of the constituent republics or for various forms of autonomy indistinguishable from independence. Ideas of turning the Soviet Union into a confederation based on voluntary association are likely to prove stillborn. Historically, confederations have moved in the direction of either greater centralization or of eventual disintegration.

Gorbachev and the traditional power structures have apparently come to believe that they have to choose between maintaining their state within present boundaries, by force, if necessary, or eventual dismemberment. What is less certain is whether they have the means or, in the end, the staying power. But the present Soviet course, even if applied with less brutal methods than the historic Soviet norm and more indirectly, is likely to turn more violent, not only between the center and the constituent republics but between the various nationalities, especially in the Caucasus.

In the effort to maintain the integrity of the state, Gorbachev probably has the emotional support of even some of the reformist elements in the Russian republic, unwilling to give up the legacy of Russian history. In the end, Russian nationalism may outweigh liberalism and provide the motive for cohesion that communism seems to have lost.

When this becomes apparent, the West will be faced with an autocratic state stretching over two continents and possessing 30,000 nuclear weapons. The Utopian image of Gorbachev single-handedly reversing 500 years of Russian history will emerge as a mirage. At that point, the West will have to decide whether it has objectives with respect to the Soviet Union other than to promote its internal evolution.

Disillusionment must not drive the West into equating the new Russia with its Stalinist predecessors. Even if the repression succeeds fully or partially -- which is far from certain -- what emerges will be most comparable to imperial Russia of Czarist times. That state was often uncomfortable for its neighbors and generally expansionist. But it did not have the ideological fervor of its Communist successors, and it proved possible for long periods to deal with it as an important member of the European concert of powers.

Of course America's moral commitment is to pluralism and self-determination and remains so. The issue is what weight should be given to requirements of national security. The self-righteous find it easy to deny that national security is a moral value too. Responsible leaders, however, cannot afford so doctrinaire an attitude. In a world of sovereign states of comparable strength, peace depends on either domination or equilibrium. And America has neither the power nor the stomach for domination. Is it possible to construct an equilibrium based on mutual necessity, or must there first be a transformation of all societies toward democratic ideas?

My view is that there are some national interests that need to be safeguarded even in relations with states that do not share our fundamental values. But there need to be criteria distinguishing the legitimate and moral pursuit of the national interest from opportunistic collaboration with tyranny and encouragement of it.

The following principles seem to me crucial:

(1) We must stop basing policy on Soviet personalities. We know too little of Soviet dynamics and even less about how to affect them to make strengthening any leader a cardinal principle of Western policy. Focusing relations on balancing fundamental interests rather than on psychological speculation will in fact bring greater stability to the relationship.

(2) The Western security interest in the Soviet Union is its peaceful conduct outside its borders. The moral objective of the West is compatible domestic institutions. What we need is a definition of coexistence and an agenda for its achievement even as we disapprove of some Soviet domestic actions. Coexistence should not be lightly abandoned. But we should recognize that it is based on self-interest and not delude ourselves into believing that it is a means to help Gorbachev promote democracy inside the Soviet Union.

(3) An analysis must be made of those areas of common action that are necessary for a structure of peace and those which are undertaken to promote democratic values. The latter -- including economic aid -- are subject to modifications if Soviet internal conduct becomes too offensive. In any event economic aid should generally be given for political and economic, not psychological, reasons except in periods of humanitarian emergency. It is sure to be wasted without appropriate economic reforms.

(4) On the issue of self-determination, the United States needs to stick to its historic position with respect to the independence of the Baltic states. The situation is more complex with respect to the other republics, especially in the Caucasus, where different ethnic populations have been mixed over centuries and intercommunal violence is a permanent threat. On the other hand, Soviet leaders must understand that even when we continue to deal with them on the security agenda, other areas of cooperation are narrowed by the convictions of our people should Moscow's conduct offend America's deepest values.

(5) The changes in Moscow should recall the West to the importance of strengthening the ties within the Atlantic area and above all between Eastern and Western Europe. While the Soviet Union is dealing with its internal problems, the West should give the highest priority to reestablishing as rapidly as possible the historic Europe. Eastern Europe -- especially Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia -- should be given the opportunity to join the West European political and economic system on an urgent basis.

The West is presently in danger of neglecting the countries of Eastern Europe, whose successful struggle for freedom inspired us only yesterday. Two steps are needed. First, the West -- and especially Western Europe -- must move quickly to integrate Eastern Europe into the European Community and other Atlantic institutions (with the exception of NATO). Second, we must give Eastern Europe an economic breathing space. As a step in that direction, the European Community should take immediate steps to open its markets to East European agricultural products.

The end of the Cold War permitted the West to stop treating the Soviet Union as a permanent adversary; the return to autocracy in the Soviet Union should cause us to abandon the illusion of considering it a permanent partner. The task now is to find a method for dealing with it as a major power with sometimes compatible and occasionally clashing interests, promoting our basic values and giving new impetus to reconstructing the historic Europe.