WASHINGTON. — Washington -- A couple of summers ago, a Washington political scientist got his 15 minutes of fame by asserting that the collapse of communism signaled ''the end of history.'' To him, what is happening in the former Soviet Union today must be a mere epilogue to all that mattered. But to millions there, it looks frighteningly like the the prologue to another volume of starvation and civil war.
To Americans at home, one of those viewpoints seems as remote as the other -- one obscure in dippy theory, the other in distant geography. We are turning inward toward our own troubles. But there is nothing abstract about the governmental and economic shambles in Russia and the other ex-Soviet repub- lics. In ways, it is more of a menace than the Kremlin-centered communism the world once feared.
This week, both sides in the power struggle there tried to assure the West that Soviet nuclear weapons are in safe hands, perhaps even more closely controlled than before. One official of the new Slavic commonwealth said that instead of one layer, three layers of command -- Russian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian -- would control weapons in those republics. But Mikhail Gorbachev, resisting the Slavic commonwealth concept, insisted that his finger alone was still on the button.
That confusion has the potential to multiply by the number of ex-Soviet republics and even the number of district officials on whose territory intercontinental missiles are installed. It is why Secretary of State James Baker says there is both opportunity and ''great danger'' in the rapidly shifting situation. There is a risk, he says, of the same kind of nationalistic conflict that embroils Yugoslavia -- ''with nuclear weapons thrown in.''
That would be an ''extraordinarily dangerous situation for Europe and the rest of the world,'' Mr. Baker believes. And in saying so, he was not even considering aloud the most far-fetched, most dangerous outgrowth of political chaos.
Suppose, for example, the territorial boss in a certain corner of Ukraine, or Kazakhstan, decides that the only way his people can avoid starvation is to buy food abroad. The only way his government can buy abroad is with hard currency, rather than the worthless Soviet ruble. And what does he have to offer for hard currency?
There is little demand for most manufactured goods from that part of the world. There is no agricultural surplus. But there is a huge surplus of nuclear weapons, and there is an eager market for them.
Libya's Muammar el Kadafi would give anything for a couple of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the United States. So would Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and perhaps whoever is in charge in Iran today. Intercontinental range would be nice, but not necessary. Something that could plant the equivalent of 100 kilotons of TNT on Tel Aviv would be worth a lot.
What would a billion dollars in oil money buy? A dozen SS-19s? It's a seller's market -- perhaps the price would go to a billion each. What could the United States, or Israel, do to prevent the sale?
In some such brushes with Armageddon, our country has bought its way to safety. A bidding war is cleaner than a nuclear war. jTC But in today's financial shape, we might not be able to outbid an insane competitor. If we tried, there would be a political explosion in Washington.
Already, the administration is promising many millions to help the ex-Soviets dismantle and destroy much of their nuclear arsenal. There is resistance to doing more, at a time when urgent domestic needs are shortchanged. But more will be demanded.
The idea of preventing starvation by selling nuclear missiles to foreign madmen may sound like a scheme to keep James Bond in business in a world turned upside down: not impossible, but unlikely. A few months ago, the suggestion that communism's ** collapse would demand more, not less, U.S. involvement in that part of the world would have seemed almost as fanciful.
There is talk of sending American Peace Corps volunteers to some of the erstwhile Soviet republics, as if they were Third World backwaters in the Sixties. There are pleas for higher-level government economic aid. And there is a warning from someone as down-to-earth as Ambassador Bob Strauss that what we don't do there, others will.
As he said here this week, while U.S. business hangs back, German and Japanese entrepreneurs are flocking into the ex-Soviet Union. Soviet communism is over, but with or without us, history plunges on.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.