Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation as Soviet foreign minister is a profound setback to a U.S. foreign policy that has come to rely on superpower cooperation in the post-Cold War world.
Especially in the Gulf crisis, Mr. Shevardnadze's support has been crucial to the credibility of the U.S. threat to use force to oust Iraq from Kuwait. His role also has been instrumental in the reunification of Germany, the withdrawal of Soviet control from Eastern Europe, the near-completion of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the winding down of regional ideological conflicts in Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan.
That Mr. Shevardnadze devoted the bulk of his resignation speech to the flak he has taken on the Gulf crisis from Soviet militarists must be especially jolting to the Bush administration. He said it was the "last straw" when hard-line parliamentarians wearing "colonel epaulets" urged a resolution that would forbid the sending of Soviet troops to the Gulf. While Mr. Shevardnadze has insisted frequently that Soviet soldiers would not be dispatched unless Soviet citizens in Iraq were endangered, his support for a key United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force after Jan. 15 set off a contretemps in the Kremlin.
"We have very good friendly relations with Iraq that have been built for years," he told his critics in the Supreme Soviet, ". . . but we do not have any moral right to agree to the aggression by Iraq, to the annexation of a very small country that cannot defend itself."
As the habitual Soviet "nyet" of the Cold War era changed to a consistent "da" under the stewardship of Mr. Shevardnadze and President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, mind-boggling progress was made on East-West issues that once seemed intractable. Much -- perhaps too much -- came to depend on the personal friendship of Mr. Shevardnadze and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and their efforts to promote a sense of trust between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev.
Behind these developments was a conviction on all sides that world stability cannot be achieved without internal Soviet stability. And this depends on overcoming what Mr. Shevardnadze has called the "rottenness" of the Soviet system. The foreign minister was in the forefront of Soviet reform -- not only in "new thinking" in foreign affairs but in perestroika and glasnost liberalization internally. But like Mr. Gorbachev, he has been identified with economic chaos, a free fall in living standards, ethnic strife, a threatened breakup of the Soviet Union and diminished Soviet influence in world affairs. These troubles remain daunting.
Much as Mr. Shevardnadze's departure is regretted, the United States and its Western allies must react realistically. They will have to be more cautious about what the Soviet Union will do.
The Gulf will be the first big test.