WASHINGTON. — It was appropriate that when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the only significant authoritarian ruler remaining in Europe, his acceptance speech resembled a blackmail note: Give me money or you'll be sorry. Sorry, Mr. Gorbachev says, because he can't be responsible for the ugly consequences of continuing collapse.
What is he responsible for? He says he deplores his government's violence in the Baltics and other nationalities' disputes. He says he deplores his government's unrelenting investment of 25 percent of GNP in militarism.
Either he doesn't mean what he says, in which case he is part of the problem, or what he means doesn't much matter, in which case he can not be part of the solution.
Some Americans regard Mr. Gorbachev's aid request as an invitation to a whopping buy-out. We will buy the Soviet Union out of statism. But how? By giving the Soviet state money?
Mr. Gorbachev, who has vowed to preserve ''the socialist choice made in 1917,'' who still sends huge subsidies to the only totalitarian regime in the Western Hemisphere, and whose power, such as it is, is based on the Communist Party's privileged elite and the security forces this man makes an unsympathetic Oliver Twist, proffering his bowl for more porridge.
For six years now the two great questions of world politics have been: What sort of man is Gorbachev? And will the nomenklatura the privileged three million who run and benefit from the Soviet system be the first ruling class in history to liquidate itself for altruistic reasons? The answers are clear.
Mr. Gorbachev is the most misunderstood man of this half-century, and the most overrated. James Billington, historian and Librarian of Congress, believes that Mr. Gorbachev ''never had a clear program, and events have long since moved far beyond anything he intended, expected or can control.''
Mr. Gorbachev, says Mr. Billington, ''is a pure child of this nomenklatura'' that is successful only at perpetuating itself.
The Soviet Union's democratic forces, struggling against suffocating statism against Mr. Gorbachev's Leninist base in the nomenklatura look toward America's example as a continent-wide, multicultural nation.
There is little we can do to influence events, but the least we can do is not encourage Mr. Gorbachev to think that the old game will go on, our government giving him spurious legitimacy by brokering the future with him and his nomenklatura, over the heads of the people.
It is quaint to wish the Moscow Embassy occupied by Mr. Billington, or historian Richard Pipes someone fluent in the language and familiar with the tapestry of history against which the future is fast unfolding.
But sending Robert Strauss to Moscow is a bad idea because it betokens a bad idea that will confirm the Soviet elite in its bad idea.
The appointment betokens the Bush administration's idea that foreign relations is a purely ''practical'' business to be conducted by ''practical'' people whose practicality is proven by their preference for reducing relations between nations to deals between governments.
Mr. Strauss, widely experienced and public-spirited, is a man for all seasons and many roles, but not his new one.
The New York Times headline on the story of his nomination ''The Ultimate Capitalist'' came from a friend's description of him: ''Strauss is the ultimate capitalist if there ever was one. Just look at his client list, a page and a half of the Fortune 500 companies. He'll teach 'em (the Soviets) about making money.''
Oh? In a healthy society, you make money by making things, not by having ''client lists.''
The idea that Mr. Strauss is the ''ultimate capitalist'' is ludicrous, given the lives of Rockefeller, Astor, Carnegie, Harriman, Ford, Luce (he founded Fortune and other magazines) and, among today's capitalists, Gates of Microsoft, Packard of Hewlett-Packard, Wexner of The Limited, Jobs of Apple.
Such people made or make things railroads, steel, cars, computers not just deals. Such people do not have ''client lists,'' they have factories and payrolls and inventories, and they hire lawyers like Strauss.
It speaks depressing volumes about the condition of American capitalism, and the degree to which it has caught the disease of statism, that the Times and much of Washington think the quintessential capitalist is a broker of influence at the seat of the central government.
What Mr. Strauss and legions of lawyers like him do is not dishonorable. Today state power permeates society, supplementing and supplanting market forces in the allocation of wealth and opportunity. Naturally, private interests hire political lawyers because influencing government decisions has become an important arena of competition.
But it is passing strange to think that this aspect of America, rather than its entrepreneurial, producing aspect, is what we should present to the Soviet Union.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.