Few heads will turn to look back fondly on 1980. Failure marked the old year, and the bad news did not even come on the grand scale. Instead, there were dribs and drabs too disconnected to concentrate the public mind in a sense of crisis and determination to solve basic problems.

The greatest of perils -- a breakdown of relations between the superpowers -- came a little closer in the course 1980. Arms control, the most important area of cooperation, stalled after Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. Political, commercial and cultural connections thinned out. Though the door remains open for improvement, Russia and the United States have come to eye each other with the grim wariness of the Cold War.

Not without reason, either. In 1980, the vortex of world politics shifted to an area where both Russia and the United States find it hard to act with wisdom and restraint -- the Persian Gulf.

In the case of Russia, all the countries on its southern frontier -- Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- are vulnerable to the subversive religious message put out by the ayatollah from Iran. Apart from eyeing those countries as a jumping-off place for new adventures, the Russians feel a need to maintain stability on their southern frontier. Hence the continued presence in Afghanistan, the rising pressures on Pakistan and the stationing of troops near Iran. On a recent trip to Moscow the only serious criticism I heard against Leonid Brezhnev was that he moved too slowly in imposing order on the clownish regime that ran Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion.

The United States, conversely, has a vital interest in the oil of Saudi Arabia and the smaller monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The influence of the ayatollah threatens that interest, as do Soviet moves. But despite talk of a Carter Doctrine and Rapid Deployment Force, the United States in 1980 was not able to develop a credible policy for asserting influence in the Gulf. That is the true significance of the long, drawn-out, shameful affair involving the hostages in Iran.

The European allies and Japan, even more dependent on Middle East oil than the United States, were inevitably put off by this failure. The French and Germans led the Europeans in the various initiatives to do business for themselves with the Russians and the oil-exporting countries, and showed during the year a consistent unwillingness to help the United States resist Soviet pressure.

American friends in the area, dubious of this country's strength and staying power, moved last year to get theirs while the getting was good. Saudi Arabia led the other oil-exporting countries is a price increase that moved the average to just under $40 a barrel. The rise of about 25 percent followed an increase of over 100 percent in 1979 -- with devastating consequences for the rest of the world.

The developing countries have had to finance huge increases in basic fuel bills. Some of the non-oil nations of Asia, Latin America and Africa scraped through last year only thanks to loans from industrial countries. China, which is beyond the help of mere loans, experienced so much trouble that it had to cut back on development plans -- perhaps with results inimical to the rule of Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping and his pro-American stance.

Most of the industrial countries also suffered extraordinary economic trouble. Inflation and slow growth became evident throughout Western Europe, including West Germany, in 1980. Japan kept moving forward, but only thanks to rising exports, which are inevitably threatened by the rise of protectionism in other countries.

The United States has traditionally served as the balance wheel of the international economy. It managed its own affairs in ways that promoted growth for most of the other countries -- both undeveloped and developed.

But in 1980, chronic inflation and threats to basic American industries forced a retreat. Interest rates of record highs were mobilized against inflation. They stimulated a recession the first quarter of 1980, and now threaten to abort a recovery.

As 1980 winds to a close, hope for improvement turns on the new president elected in the United States. But the new administration is pledged to defense, tax and energy policies that promote inflation. It disdains the direct weapon of getting at wages and prices.

So it is hard to see how the downward spiral that picked up such force in 1980 will soon be arrested. A fair bet is that in 1980 events entered into cahoots with fate to make 1981 look even worse.