Twenty years ago, anyone looking at a map of the world would have had no difficulty in finding evidence of the imperial design of which the Soviet Union and the United States routinely accuse each other. There in the center, stretching from East Germany to North Korea and North Vietnam, was the Soviet domain, united in a political and economic system, all presumptively subordinate to the leadership of Moscow. Beyond, in Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria and in the Communist parties of Western Europe, were faithful sources of support.

Surrounding the great Sino-Soviet land mass were the acronymous expressions of American power -- SEATO to the south and east, CENTO in the Middle East, NATO in the west. Supplementing these was a web of military alliances. In the organization and the treaties, no one doubted the paramount role -- political, financial and military -- of the United States.

Outside this band of encircling alliances -- the world "encirclement" was in common use in those days -- lay a generally friendly community of nations. From Latin America came strong support for American purposes. By 1961, it was not possible to muster a secure majority at the United Nations to keep China, as a Soviet province, out. But it was still possible to get the votes to have admission declared an Important Question, which thus required a two-thirds vote. It was only a few years earlier that John Foster Dulles had accused those non-communist countries that stood apart from a formal alliance with the United States of an immoral neutralism. Even neutrality, if sufficiently inconvenient, can be an ism.

In an earlier article, I dealt with the misfortune that, in these past 20 years, has overtaken what map-viewing strategists call the Soviet Empire. Moscow and Peking have split apart; the Eastern European countries have become increasingly independent and assertive; ties with Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria and others have been served; Eurocommunism has arrived. By comparison, the American decline, if indubitable, has been brilliantly in contrast.

SEATO and CENTO have gone, more or less literally, with the wind, for it was of that they largely consisted. Similarily the bilateral military arrangements. All were an aberration of the military and diplomatic mind. The politicians and governments united in these treaties had always enough immediate and pressing problems of their own without being much concerned with the seemingly far more theoretical danger from China or the Soviet Union. And there was danger for any politician in seeming to be too pliable as regards American policy. Pakistan was in many ways the center of this system, a member of both treaty organizations. But the Pakistanis were always much too practical to see their alliance and their arms as an instrument against the Soviets or the Chinese. Against any determined movement by the Red Army, they would not have lasted more than hours. But the arms were extremely useful against India, where, in fact, they were used in the border wars. In the end, the country once described as our most faithful Asian ally succumbed to its own geographical and ethnic division. It is hard to believe that anyone can now regret the passing of the Dulles policy of military (or imperial) might derived from alliance with the indigent.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization does survive. Here, too, as compared with 20 years ago, there is far less tendency to accept American leadership automatically. On matters ranging from trade policy with the Soviets to missle deployment, negotiation is now required where suggestion would once have served. But the singular feature of this change is that we sought it. In the years following World War II, we invested thousands of millions of dollars in the industrial rejuvenation of Western Europe, as we also accorded strong support to the industrial revival of Japan. Combined with the efforts of the countries involved, it was brilliantly successful -- far more successful than anything achieved by the Soviets in the economically less advanced world of Eastern Europe. It was hardly to be supposed that this success would be unmatched by a similar development in European and Japanese political self-confidence and self-assertion.

There has been another aspect of our policy, equally deliberate but largely uncelebrated, that has contributed to the independent mood of our friends, and notably that of Germany and Japan. In the years since World War II, a huge share of our available capital has gone each year into relatively sterile military investment at home. In Germany and Japan, it has gone into the modernization and rejuvenation of civilian industrial plant. No one should doubt the difference that this has made. Those who argue automatically for any military outlay as a support to American strength should reflect on how much greater our prestige and power would be in the world if our industrial plant were in better condition than it is at present.

We have also lost the more or less automatic support for our policy from numerous of the countries of -- as it is still called -- the Third World. No longer do our signals bring an assured response at the United Nations of conferences convening elsewhere in the world. But, again, such independence was a purpose of our policy; on no point in the past 20 or 30 years was our rhetoric so loud and clear. That a new industrial power such as Brazil, a freshly endowed one such as Mexico, greatly affluent ones such as the members of OPEC, should now assert themselves with greater confidence can hardly come to us as a surprise. The green revolution in India (bringing a modest export surplus of grain in some recent good years), the considerable industrial development and the huge flow of remittances from its eager workers overseas have given that country an economic independence that was unimaginable when I left there 18 years ago. But nowhere has this movement away from the United States brought any appreciable alliance with or subordination to the purposes of the Soviet Union. The notion sometimes bruited that India, home of millions of the world's most passionate property owners, some of its most rapacious capitalists and myriads of its most undisciplined politicans, is somehow in the Soviet orbit is errant nonsense.

Passing over such examples of extreme ambiguity as Iraq, now in conflict with a hostile Iran; Syria, now a seemingly indispensable stabilizing influence on one indubitably capitalist Lebanon; Angola, where a Marxist government is sustained by Gulf Oil; and Ethiopia, which, to the extent that it is governed by anyone, has been lost in trade for Somalia, there have been only two incontrovertible cases of American reverse in the past 20 years. One of these is South Vietnam (along with Cambodia), and the other is Iran.

The parallel here and the lessons of the experience are wonderfully clear, although in foreign policy even less than in economics does experience triumph over preferred belief. Vietnam and Iran were the two countries of the Third World to which, as I earlier noted, we accorded the closest military embrace -- in one, active and costly participation; in the other, an expensive intrusion of American equipment and advisers. In both, our influence was exercised through local leaders who in Vietnam were incompetent and corrupt and in Iran oppressive and disdained. In both, we reaped the consequences of this leadership. But not even Iran was lost to the Soviets. The Iranians ended up hating everybody.

The consequences of the close embrace are clear. They are the same for the Soviets -- were the same in China -- as for ourselves. If the local leadership is strong, effective and well regarded, it will not tolerate foreign domination. If it is weak, ineffective, unpopular or oppressive, it may accept foreign guidance or domination, but it will not be tolerated by its own people. That is the enduring fact of what, as I shall argue in another article, is rather fancifully called modern imperialism.