VIENNA — Vienna.--The struggle over whether the Dalai Lama should be allowed to appear at the World Conference on Human Rights single-handedly crystallized all the hard issues at stake here.
More than that, it forced those Asian countries that are the principal antagonists to further progress on developing a more ambitious U.N. consensus on human rights to face up to the intellectual weaknesses in their argument in a way the Western nations or Amnesty International and the other non-governmental organizations could never have pushed them to on their own.
The Dalai Lama was finally allowed to speak on U.N. territory only after the most tremendous public row that, at one point, threatened to stall the conference in its tracks. Austria, after much equivocation, plucked up courage and decided to resist Chinese pressure, even though the Chinese foreign ministry was threatening in so many words to pull China out of the conference.
When he finally made his speech, the Dalai Lama addressed the most controversial issue of the conference, the universality of human rights -- that certain basic rights apply, across the board, to every country, whatever their state of development and however different their cultural traditions.
''It is not enough,'' he said, ''to provide people with food and shelter and clothing. The deeper nature needs to breathe the precious air of liberty.''
Every Western nation, of course, goes along with this, as does Russia. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev went one step further and argued here that ''when violations of individual rights and freedom are involved,'' Russia no longer accepts that the world community does not have a right to interfere in another nation's sovereignty.
The Dalai Lama on his own is a tidal force. He has been supported not only by the West and Russia but, perhaps even more importantly, by the South Korean foreign minister, Han Sung-Jon.
''Lack of economic development can never be used as an excuse for any abuse of human rights,'' he said in his speech to the plenary session. ''History shows that special circumstances don't justify rights' abuses.''
South Korea not only is the most successful country economically of the last 20 years, it has also made faster progress than any other country in the world in achieving the full panoply of human rights as elaborated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
South Korean ballast, added to the Dalai Lama's, is a powerful counterweight to China's, and works to isolate China's Asian allies -- Indonesia, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Singapore.
At first sight, then, it might look as if the Chinese and their supporters don't have much of a leg to stand on. Only the brute strength of a veto-wielding power, one would surmise, could resist the onslaught of world opinion.
The world is not so simple. As U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali argued in an interview with me, with the Cold War over, many Third World countries now feel more free to distance themselves from the West, partly out of pique at being ignored as the West concentrates its energies -- and its check book -- on Eastern Europe and partly because the Cold War imposed a ''certain discipline'' on the countries of the Third World.
Former President Jimmy Carter made a similar point to me, but added the thought that the attitude of the president of the United States makes all the difference. Since he left office, he said, no president, including Bill Clinton, has given human rights sustained attention.
Mr. Carter has used his position as the elder statesman of human rights to push the American delegation, led by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, to meet the Third World half way by accepting that the so-called economic rights -- employment, nutrition, education and health -- are as important as free expression, democracy and habeas corpus.
In his opening speech, Secretary Christopher was indirect about such a change in U.S. policy. But there are indications that the U.S. delegation will meet Third World demands in the drafting committee.
Nevertheless, by one count, China has up to 70 countries on its side of the argument. Even if the score is rather less than that, the democracies are going to have their work cut out to get a final conference text that unequivocally accepts their point of view on universality and advances the cause of human rights by such innovations as a U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights and an International Court of Human Rights.
Is the tide coming in or going out on human rights? At this point in the conference I would say, if pushed, it's still coming in but not as fast as needed if it's to lift all boats before the conference ends.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.