WASHINGTON — WHEN MIKHAIL Gorbachev toured the Stanford campus last June, his host, George P. Shultz, asked the Soviet president whether he had any retirement plans. The former secretary of state got a frosty stare until he went on to say that, down the road, his guest might consider teaching in sun-splashed California. Gorbachev beamed.
Now it looks as if Gorbachev's longtime sidekick, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, soon may enter the visiting scholar market. From the war in Afghanistan to zestful tales of Kremlin intrigue, the retiring Soviet foreign minister has lots to impart.
Perhaps Secretary of State James A. Baker III will fix his Soviet buddy up at his alma mater, Princeton, which also specializes in foreign studies.
The Baker line on Shevardnadze seems to have a double edge.
On the one hand, the administration truly regrets that he quit. He made a big difference in warming relations. On the other hand, the administration holds that nothing has really changed by his departure because Gorbachev, who holds similar views, remains power.
It took the striped-pants sherry-sippers too long to figure out that the Soviets were serious about tossing 70 years of Communist dogma overboard. When that notion finally sunk in over here, hard-liners over there began having second thoughts. But by then the White House had invested too much political coin into Gorbachev & Co. to write off its holdings lightly.
Still, you can get even-money odds in Moscow these days that Gorbachev also will soon be gone. Should that happen, the right flank of American journalism, lately becalmed in an isolationist fog, will sail out of its doldrums.
The chances that the Soviet Union will re-emerge as a full-fledged police state, however, are a lot higher than the chances that the Soviets will once again pose a serious security threat to U.S. interests.
That is because the potential emergence of get-tough policies in Moscow coincides with a deepening nationwide economic and political collapse. The urgent need to come to grips with an internal disaster leaves little room for bold moves abroad.
A central facet of the Soviet debacle is the collapse of the ruble as a viable index of worth. That has led to widespread hoarding of goods and to hyperinflation. The road back requires the recreation of a currency with a credible value. And that, in turn, will require help from the World Bank and other global monetary kitties.
People who steer these funds are already skittish about extending aid to Moscow without the further complication of any fresh Soviet foreign adventure. If Russia's five-million-man military force has a role to play, it is to get the grain out of the bins and into the railroad cars before it all rots.
Leonid Brezhnev, the last capo of the Communist empire, liked to say that "socialist gains, once realized, can never be reversed." That came to be known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.
Now we have a corollary: "Socialist losses, once gone, can never be recovered." It could be named for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who risked his political fortune to reunite the country -- and won.
The Kohl Doctrine seized a window of opportunity in which Kremlin reformers were strong enough to allow the empire to contract without becoming overcome by taunts of "Who Lost Germany?"
Shevardnadze's departure signals that such taunts will grow in volume. But the critics will have a harder time reversing what has already been done.
Andrew Glass writes a Washington column for Cox Newspapers.