There could be comfort of a sort these days in finding one subject on which the United States and the Soviet Union, or more precisely their governments, agree. And there is; it is that imperialism is the greatest international ambition and consequent threat of our time. Each government routinely accuses the other of imperial design -- of present effort and future intention to extend its influence, will and political and economic system beyond its borders and most notably to the poor countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Reference to the imperialist powers, meaning the United States, is routine in Soviet official expression. In an early Cabinet meeting, President Reagan is reported as proposing that reference to the Soviet Empire become the normal usage. During Secretary of State Alexander Haig's confirmation proceedings, the more common reference was to Soviet expansionism. This can be taken as a synonym reflecting the tendency to convert anything that is morally unacceptable into an ism.

But if, indeed, the Soviet Union and the United States are engaged in an imperial competition, it is surely the least successful in all history. In the last 20 years both have lost influence and suffered grave reverses beyond their borders. At most the effort has been to see who can lose what is called imperial power the least rapidly. By any calculation we have been losing less rapidly in this respect than the Soviets; and the largest part of our loss of influence has been the result of deliberate policy -- of a well-considered effort to build up the economic and political independence of other lands. We are now, in some measure, surprised by the results of our own success.

I would like to turn first to the Soviet imperial achievement or nonachievement of these last two decades. Then in a second article I will come to our performance. And finally I will suggests the reasons, surprisingly similar in the main, why the external influence of both of the superpowers has been in decline, one obvious reason being that what is now called imperialism bears only the most palid relationship to the forthright exercise of such authority in earlier times.

The year 1960 is a very good one on which to begin. World War II had been over for 15 years; its physical ravages had been repaired; the postwar pattern of international power and influence seemed fully established and totally stable; in that year, or more exactly a few months later, I became the servant of American imperialism as the ambassador to India. In 1960, any imperial strategist in Moscow, looking out on the world scene and ignoring some possible developing flaws, could only have reacted with the most intense satisfaction. The Soviet Union, incomparably the greatest power in Euope, was united geographically and in political and economic faith and system with China, the greatest power in Asia. Along the western marches, in turn, was a seemingly faithful band of communist states -- East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, as well as the independent but still stolidly Communist state of Yugoslavia and the terra incognita of Albania. Similarly to the east the writ ran on to North Korea and North Vietnam. One marvels now to think of it; an imperium, as it seemed, extending from the Brandenburg Gate to the port of Haiphong. There had been nothing like it since Genghis Khan or, as the Russians might prefer, Rome itself. Quite possibly this structure was more impressively solid when viewed from the outside than from within. In any case, all American references were to the Sino-Soviet bloc; in those years Secretary of State Dean Rusk characterized China as a "Soviet Manchukuo" devoid of any of the essential aspects of sovereignty. All sovereignty belonged to Moscow.

But there was yet more. In Indonesia Sukarno was backed by a large and powerful Communist Party. Egypt, the most influential country of the Arab world, was recipient of an increasing flow of Soviet arms and advisers. As was Ben Bella in Algeria. There was support to Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. In Italy and France, huge Communist parties seemd in impeccable subordination to Soviet command. Similarly smaller ones elsewhere. More important, perhaps, was the feeling everywhere in the poor lands that socialism was on the wave of the future. How could it be otherwise? Capitalism had not served to break the terrible bonds of poverty. There must be an alternative; the only available one was socialism or communism. Moscow, not Washington (or New York,) had custody of the future.

One has only to recapture this past to see how great has been the fall -- one made greater by statesmen who ascribed more unity than ever, in fact, existed. Russia and China have split bitterly apart, one of the most formidable developments of our time. Rumania has developed an independent line that, on occasion, has involved overtures to Peking. Hungary has designed its own relatively liberal economic system. The case of Poland calls for no current comment. Albania has returned from an association with China to total ambiguity. Various of the Western Communist parties, and most notably that of Italy, have proclaimed their independence. In Indonesia the Communists were liquidated with a cruelty that no one anywhere could condone. The Soviet advisers have been expelled from Egypt. Tanks originally supplied by the Soviets ousted Ben Bella and returned him to the confinement that, by either the French or his own people, was his near-lifetime career. Nkrumah, unwisely absent from his country, was ousted. And in the poor countries of the world socialism has ceased to be the glowing alternative to poverty -- given the terrible weight of the latter, one might only wish that it were. As Marx himself foresaw, socialism becomes an alternative only after the arrival of capitalism. It is a point to which I will return.

Against all this has been the Communist expansion -- in Afghanistan to rescue a failing Marxist regime, a country as inhospitable to imperialism in the last two centuries as any in the world. And in Angola, where the MPLA regime is sustained by Cuban soldiers and, in a possibly much more practical way, by revenues from Gulf Oil. And in Ethiopia, where, as Evelyn Waugh once observed, the writ of governments has never run reliably very much beyond the airport, in his day the railway station. As a bastion of communism, Ethiopia is in exchange for Somalia, an earlier bastion of communism, now an outpost of the free world. Such is the 20-year-old record of the Soviet Empire. Expansionism indeed!

In contrast with that of the Soviet Union, the 20-year record of the United States looks almost heroic. We were expelled from Indochina, but Indochina is a long way from being China. As the Soviets suffered in Egypt, so did we in Iran. Elsewhere our influence has yielded to the discovery of the OPEC countries that they could charge what the market would bear, something that should not have been a great surprise to a capitalist country, an opportunity that could have been discovered from a reading of our better economic textbooks. And, as in the case of Brazil, Mexico and perhaps even India, our influence has suffered from the growing self-confidence that goes with industrial (or agricultural) development. Most of all, it has suffered from the highly successful development of our advanced industrial allies and friends. But all this, as noted, we have sought. With all these countries we remain on reasonably friendly terms. Our disasters have been only in countries, South Vietnam and Iran, where we attempted a much closer military and political embrace. To a further contemplation of the American imperial record over the last 20 years I return in a further article.