DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA — Durham, North Carolina. A SPATE of articles have recently appeared proclaiming the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a significant international factor and maybe even as a functioning society. In the words of one commentator, Soviet-American relations ''are so good these days because the Soviet Union has ceased to be a superpower.''
Some liberals seem to be making this point to persuade the American people that improved relations and technology transfer are not dangerous. Conservatives make the point to say that the Soviet Union is not a durable partner and that we must continue to rely on our own military force.
But the fact that the liberals and the conservatives agree suggests that this analysis serves deeper psychological needs for Americans. We would like to believe that ''history has ended,'' that we can concentrate on promoting our values around the world, comfortable in the thought that they are no longer subject to challenge.
Would that it were so! What is striking, however, is that the articles are appearing precisely at the time when events are proving them wrong.
First, the president of the United States just traveled across the ocean to meet the Soviet president in a country on the Soviet border. It was not the Soviet president who traveled across the ocean to, say, Canada. This certainly suggests that President Bush does not think that Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union are irrelevant.
President Bush is right. We exaggerated Soviet might in 1980 when it was being led by the half-dead Leonid Brezhnev, but we were not totally wrong. The Soviet Union is the largest country in the world, and its economy is larger than Japan's. It has a huge ground and air force, and since geography is force projection, we were right during the Afghanistan war to see the Soviet Union as the major land superpower in this area on its border. It still is, just as the United States is the superpower in the Americas.
The only thing that has changed domestically in the Soviet Union since 1980 is that it now has an energetic and imaginative leader and that its economy has strengthened.
The ruble gross-national-product figures for the Soviet Union are highly controversial and probably meaningless, but kilowatts of electricity produced is considered a good indicator of economic development, and it is a reasonably reliable indicator of growth. In 1980 the Soviet Union produced 1.294 billion kilowatts of electricity, while in 1989 it produced 1.722 billion kilowatts. The increase of 428 million kilowatts, 33 percent, in nine years of ''stagnation'' is larger than the total Soviet output of 369 million kilowatts in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis.
The important thing that has happened in the Soviet Union is that the old Soviet leaders retained fears of Europe from World War I and World War II and still thought in terms of ideological conflict, while the new Soviet leader is looking forward to Russia's position in the 21st century.
The great achievement of the postwar world is that we ended 400 years of war in Western Europe. In Mr. Gorbachev's words, we created a ''common European home'' of 600 million people of European culture living between the Elbe River and California. Gorbachev's mind is young enough to understand that this ends the centuries of threat to Russia from the West. He understands that having Poland as a colony only brought headaches and that it would be worse if Russia conquered France and Great Britain and had to keep them pacified.
But, like President Bush, President Gorbachev understands that history has not ended. The ''Europeans'' in Western Europe, Central Europe, the Soviet Union and the United States constitute less than a fifth of the world's population -- and a declining proportion at that. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, along with continuing civil wars in Liberia and Sri Lanka, are clear reminders that Asian and African countries have the same ethnic, economic and social strains -- and the same lack of correspondence of ethnic and country borders -- that tore Europe apart during its centuries of industrialization. It is optimistic in the extreme to think that Saddam Hussein of Iraq is the last problem we will have in the Third World -- and most Third World countries have far more than Iraq's 17 million people.
Indeed, one reason that Mr. Gorbachev wants Russia to be part of a billion-person European defense community is that his country is on the borders of China and India and he knows that the other superpowers of mid-21st century will also have a billion people.
President Bush is often accused of not having vision, but his trip to Helsinki is only the latest piece of evidence that he has a very clear vision of the international relations of the next century. In a world in which the most likely threats will come next from Asia, the United States needs the Soviet Union as an ally, not as an enemy.