In earlier articles, I've noted the promiscuous way in which we and the Soviets trade charges of imperialism in these days and the way, also, that what is so characterized has been for both powers a drastic retreat. For the Soviets, having regard for their position in China, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, Egypt and Algeria and various Western Communist parties, the loss of external influence in the last two decades has been enormous. That there have been gains of a sort of Afghanistan, Angola and Ethiopia, countries in which there is only a tenuous relationship between government and the governed, can hardly seen from Moscow to be compensation. Our experience has been much less drastic. But we have had the exceedingly painful reverses in Vietnam and Iran, and neither among the other industrial countries nor in Latin America and elsewhere do we have the all-but-automatic support that we took for granted 20 years back. So it comes about that each power now accuses the other of practicing something that is wonderfully in reverse. The reasons for this retreat, I would like to urge, are much the same for both countries, although they work more strongly against the Soviets than against ourselves.

Perception begins with the careless fashion in which the word imperialism is thrown around -- in the delight that all foreign policy commentators, American, Russian and no doubt Papuan and Lebanese, have in giving substance to shadow, making concrete the subjective. What the word imperialism now describes bears no appreciable relationship to the practice of the last century and for centuries before. Then the imperial power governed with its own people, and it backed its government with its own soldiers or those sufficiently subject to its discipline. So it was in the Spanish, British French, Portuguese and the more exiguous American empires and, of course, in the great eastern and southern reaches of Imperial Russia.

Where this imposed government and military power was weak, it was thrown out, and it did not matter that those so governed were culturally and ethically identical with their imperial masters. It was Spaniards who threw the Spanish out of New Spain, English who threw the English out of the North American colonies. The instinct for national identity, autonomy and self-government is one of the great constants of history. The real imperialism suppressed it but only because it brought its authority directly, comprehensively and obtrusively to bear.

The case of India is instructive. The British were greatly aided in conquest -- a point conscientiously neglected by Indian historians -- because they were in orderly contrast with the anarchic, rapacious and incompetent despots they displaced. They were, in the beginning, a liberating force. But by the middle of the last century their rule would not have lasted a month in the absence of a competent corps of British administrators backed by British and British-led troops. The mutiny of the Bengal Army in 1857 and the consequent (if temporary) collapse of British authority showed everyone where the real source of power lay. In the princely states, the Raj did govern through the prince and his public apparatus. But no one was in doubt that the true authority rested with the British resident and the armed force on which he could call. All knew that the prince could be superseded, i.e., sacked, if he did not conform; it happened not rarely, and one prince in western India was thrown out for staging an unduly expensive wedding between his favorite dogs.

In French, Portuguese and British Africa the same forthright principles were in effect; the ultimate British reliance in Africa was expressed in verse: "Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim gun and they have not."

That is what true imperialism involved. And, in the end, it was not enough. Everywhere, contending with the urge for national self-identity, it collapsed.

The external influence that we or the Russians seek to exercise is, by comparison with the real imperialism, a pallid thing. To send in administrators is unthinkable; at most there may be technicians and advisers. And while, as in Afghanistan, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic and one hopes not Poland, troops have been dispatched, this is deeply against the conscience of the age. Government, in any case, must be by local politicians, and this ensures, as we learned in Vietnam and the Soviets are almost certainly discovering in Afghanistan, their discredit. There are, in fact, only two possibilities in such rule. If it is good and independent and has the confidence of its people, it will not long tolerate foreign guidance. If it is pliable and cooperative and accepts foreign domination, it will not long have the confidence of its people.

There is another fatal difference from the 19th century. Then there was no real thought of imposing an economic and social system; what was found in Asia and Africa was accepted. The only intrusion on the indigenous culture came from the trading and plantation enterprises, and while this on occasion, as in the sugar colonies, could be great, it reflected no systematic design. The missionaries did make an effort to alter the local culture and institutions; for this reason there was almost always friction between them and the colonial administrators.

In recent times, an avowed purpose of the great powers in extending their influence has been to preserve free enterprise, sometimes called free institutions, or to bring the liberating miracle of modern socialism. This compulsion is irrelevant and damaging, and especially so for the Soviets. The difference between capitalism and communism is relevant only after there is capitalism. No one viewing a jungle, a tribal ceremony or a simple village society can tell whether it is capitalist or socialist because it is neither. The effort to extend a system causes more difficulties for the Soviets than for the United States because socialism is a definite, structured thing. When tried in the poor countries, it places a heavy demand on the scarcest of all resources, namely administrative capacity. Free enterprise, in contrast, is anything, however primitive, that happens to exist.

It is something of a puzzle, incidentally, as to why Soviet policy fails to recognize the extensive irrelevance of socialist development in the more elementary reaches of the Third World. Nothing was so clear in the mind of Marx; socialism must come after the organizing and socializing experience of capitalism. (He would have had grave doubts as to its feasibility even in a country anciently so talented in organization as China.) But we should not doubt that rhetoric about protecting free enterprise can be damaging; it suggests some dubious capitalist design; it is admirably useful to critics; and since the controlling influence on the economic system is not ideological choice but the stage of development, it does not make any difference.

There are other reasons why our influence and that of the Soviets are in retreat. Neither the economic system of the United States nor that of the Soviet Union has, in these last few years, been turning in the kind of performance that would make it a lodestar for the rest of the world. Both are highly organized systems; both could be showing the sclerotic tendencies that are inherent in all organization, public or private, socialist or non-socialist. But the main reason for the shared decline in influence is, without question, the unbounded determination of people to govern themselves and the contradiction in any surrogate effort from the outside that causes the good and strong leader to assert his independence, the compliant and weak one to sacrifice the confidence of his own people.

Two thoughts remain. I have spoken of decline; that is not synonymous with loss. One cannot suppose that we are worse off from living in a world of self-confident, self-assertive states. It does less for our national ego; but with the negotiation it requires, it could be a useful restraint on hasty or foolish action. Our heaviest reverse in these last 20 years was in South Vietnam. Can anyone suppose that we are economically, politically, culturally or militarily less well off because that unhappy peninsula has not returned to the obscurity for which one can only assume nature intended it? The dominoes, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore -- the main case for our intervention in Indochina -- stand as upright as ever before.

What is dangerous is not the decline in influence but the misperception of it. Nations as now constituted can act dangerously out of an exuberant sense of their strength. But they can also act dangerously (or unwisely) out of the fear of seeming weak. It was such a fear that sent us into and kept us in Vietnam. It was the weakness of a client state and the fear of having this revealed that sent the Soviets into Afghanistan and could be the cause of action in Poland. We need to see, and must hope others can see, that what is called weakness is, in fact, an accommodation to the times -- to the powerful instinct that causes people the world over to resist influence from the outside and to resist all the more strongly the tighter the embrace.