When facts change dramatically, policy must change proportionately if it is to be relevant and useful. For more than four decades, U.S. foreign policy was dominated by the fact of a powerful, expansionist Soviet Union. Containing its expansion was the central goal and the most important activity of U.S. policy from Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan.
Quite suddenly it changed, peacefully, quickly, wonderfully. Soviet troops stood by while Eastern European and then Soviet peoples reclaimed control of their societies. The Soviet Union dissolved and in place of endless haggling over incremental steps, Boris Yeltsin was in New York, Washington, Paris and Bonn declaring Russia an ally and friend, proposing cooperation, asking for help, leading an authentic democratic revolution.
So much good news is not easy to accept. Western governments have not been as quick or generous as they should be in providing new international arrangements to support the new democracies.
The European Community has resisted the closer economic and political association sought by Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The U.S. has resisted expanding NATO's membership or extending its security guarantees to include the Eastern democracies. Republicans and Democrats alike have dragged their institutional feet on providing adequate economic assistance and inclusive security arrangements. Each of these is a terrible mistake.
It is not enough for the U.S. and the West to reduce armed forces, make verifiable weapons reductions, cut their defense budgets or assist in dismantling the nuclear arsenals of the former Soviet Union. It is critically important that they make room for Russia and the other democracies in Western institutions, the borders and functions of which still tend to reflect the Cold War.
If the European Community is unwilling to open its markets to eastern products, the U.S. president could propose an ''Initiative for New Democracies'' like that offered to Latin America. And, if security guarantees cannot be worked through NATO, that framework should be stretched and bent into something new. Imagination and initiative, not business as usual, are urgently required from both the president and Congress.
Preserving democracy in Russia should now be the central goal and top priority of American foreign policy. Preserving and strengthening the institutions of freedom in Eastern Europe are as important today as preserving Western European democracies was in 1947.
xTC The consequences of failure could be as catastrophic. Yet no Western response comparable to the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO or the Common Market has been forthcoming.
The problem is acute. And there is every reason to believe that time may be short.
As Martin Malia wrote recently in The New Republic, the scope of the Soviet collapse is unprecedented in modern, indeed world, history. The extent and the nature of the problem is widely misunderstood, Mr. Malia noted, because ''main-line American Sovietologists have so long misconstrued the Soviet system, making it appear much more of a success than it really was.''
While Western analysts spoke of a Soviet model of development and the CIA grossly overestimated the strength of the Soviet economy, the reality was very different. For all but a top elite, widespread poverty, primitive living conditions in many places and desperately inadequate medical facilities were the consequence of decades of neglect of civilian needs in favor of the military-industrial sector.
Today some ''experts'' write as if department stores without goods, meat markets without meat and hospitals without
antibiotics or sterile syringes are the consequence of Boris Yeltsin's economic policies and the difficulties of transition from socialism. In fact, these hardships are the end products of the socialist institutions now being dismantled.
But, although we know a great deal about economic growth and development, the world knows little about transforming centralized socialist economies into economies that operate on the principles of the market. So strong was the Marxist myth of unilinear development of history from capitalism to socialism that the possibility of transforming command into market economies was barely considered. (The principal exception was Hernando de Soto's brilliant book, ''The Other Path.'')
Given time and freedom, I do not doubt that the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe will find their ways to economic growth and prosperity. But how much time and freedom will they have before impatient authoritarians cut short democratic experiments? This question is especially acute for Russia, which remains -- let us never forget -- a major military power.