In any bureaucracy, policies outlive by years the reasons for their existence. The Soviet menace has disappeared, in the considered view of the U.S. government. The word did not get out to all hands. The U.S. is still trying to contain that menace.
The most obvious example is non-recognition of Vietnam. This is treated gingerly, as though sensitivities on the POW-MIA issue make it too hot to handle. But that is not why Washington refuses to recognize Hanoi.
Nayan Chanda's carefully researched 1986 book, ''Brother Enemy,'' a history of Vietnam after the war, lays this out. Recognition was in the works during the Carter administration, backed by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. The POW issue was apparently resolved, the embassy site in Hanoi was picked. But in 1978, the national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, thwarted it.
His reasoning was simple, and based on containment of Soviet expansionism, the cornerstone of U.S. policy since 1948. To counter Soviet hegemony and use of Vietnam as a proxy, the U.S. needed partnership with Communist China.
Vietnamese history is an unbroken story of encroaching on Cambodia while fending off Chinese encroachment. Sino-Soviet rivalry made Moscow a natural patron of Hanoi and Beijing of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The Soviet fleet filled U.S.-built berths at Cam Ranh Bay. A nasty Sino-Vietnamese border war was breaking out, Beijing's way of relieving Vietnamese pressure on Cambodia.
Mr. Brzezinski concluded that normalization with Hanoi would jeopardize the greater prize of normalization with Beijing. That is why the U.S. does not recognize Vietnam, and never mind that all the circumstances have changed.
Another example is U.S. policy regarding the United Nations. President Bush spoke glowingly to the General Assembly last week in praise of the world body. In contrast to his rhetoric, his policy enunciation was premised on continued suspicion.
After years of U.S. resentment of U.S.-bashing in the U.N. by a coalition of Soviet, puppet and Third World governments and the U.N.'s bureaucracy, the Reagan administration adopted a policy calculated hostility. It stopped paying dues and assessments. It would bankrupt the U.N. into good behavior.
This policy, coinciding with Soviet collapse, worked. Yankee-bashing virtually ended. The U.N. and affiliated agencies undertook reforms. So Reagan hostility gave way to Bush suspicion. The president in 1990 outlined a policy of paying arrearages, more than $1 billion, over five years pending U.N. good behavior. Congress, more suspicious than the president, diluted his schedule.
Meanwhile, the Soviet veto on the Security Council became Russian, and Russia a beggar craving the favor of the West. With China similarly disposed, the Communist veto is sheathed. The West has a freedom of action on the Security Council as never before.
The U.S. discovered in the gulf crisis that the U.N. was not merely once again a friendly arena but a useful tool. The U.N. also suddenly seemed a godsend for dealing with regional conflicts.
But Mr. Bush's enthusiasm did not extend to paying debts. Real U.S. policy remains one of caution, nothing more. The basis for U.S. antagonism has vanished but vestiges of the antagonism remain. With the U.S. still paying but a fifth of what it owes a year, the U.N. will remain crippled in its ability to act in U.S. interests for five more years.
Another arguable case is Cuba. The U.S. is tightening the embargo and ostracism of Fidel Castro's regime which, without Soviet oil subsidies, is replacing buses with bicycles and blacking out Havana. The real motive is old cold-warriors' belief that this dispute, dating from 1959, is now winnable. The more official explanation is that Cuban subversion of the Americas, though greatly diminished, continues.
One argument for a reversal of policy is that it might more readily topple Mr. Castro. The Eastern European countries that overthrew communism first were the ones with the most Western contact and assistance. State Department experts believe contrarily that Cuba is going downhill so fast something must break, but that no alternative to Mr. Castro is visible within Cuba or likely in his lifetime.
Fidel can withstand U.S. attacks which martyrize him. He probably could not survive uninhibited two-way communications. For this reason, he would probably never permit normalization, and the Bush administration is doing him a favor in not considering it.
What U.S. policy regarding Vietnam, the United Nations and Cuba share is their attempt to contain a Soviet menace that the administration believes no longer exists.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.