WASHINGTON -- DURING THIS historic summer, the cover has been closing on an era. This last week, it snapped shut on the long struggle of the two superpowers for the legendary tribal kingdom of Afghanistan.
Astonishingly, the Soviet Union announced on Sept. 13 that it would now take still another step in decolonialization and stop all arms aid to its Najibullah regime in Kabul. The United States wisely followed suit, and another painful era was over -- finis.
In the beginning years -- things seem so clean and simple when they are beginning -- there had been a kind of nobility about the countries of the developed world "helping" and "aiding" and "backing" the undeveloped countries to "solve" their problems. It was even widely assumed the fate of the globe would be decided in the Cubas, Afghanistans and Tanzanias of the Third World.
So, the developmental leitmotiv after World War II and the massive decolonialization process that followed the war was to pour monies into the superpowers' surrogate fights in Cuba and Afghanistan, but also for the Nordic countries to pour development aid into a country such as Tanzania.
They were all to be grand and generous gestures. The Soviet Union saw itself supporting modern change in Afghanistan against the old tribalism (even though it was unwittingly dragged into the conflict by various accidents in Kabul, much like the U.S. in Saigon). The United States saw itself supporting legitimate Afghan fighters fighting against totalitarian communism and for their homeland. The Swedes and Finns saw themselves as replacing the old religious schools and individual farm plots in Tanzania with spanking new government schools and collective farms that would "modernize" the country.
But somehow, it didn't work as planned -- not at all. And what did happen, across the board, is profoundly disturbing.
These Third World conflicts, where the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. fought out the big fight over democracy vs. communism through surrogates, only exhausted and drained the superpowers. Cynicism grew in the blood of the fallen.
I remember a luncheon in Washington in 1986, just after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, when several top Soviet officials had come to a U.S. Information Agency lunch. Both Soviets and Americans grew absolutely lyrical over their exhaustion with "holy" Third Worldism -- and how they were being used by it.
"Aren't you just sick of them?" one leading Soviet was saying to one American after a few glasses of champagne. "Never in history has there been a motherland like the Soviet Union being impoverished by her 'subjects.' "
But what the great aid race -- the great "Help me!" bazaar -- did to its Third World clients was far worse. It made many of them cynical and arrogant beggars who learned how to manipulate, negotiate and demand whatever need their leaders felt at the moment. It relieved them of the need to help themselves. It substituted placebos for natural and organic development, and all too often allowed and encouraged them to pursue false utopias -- in short, they could make mistakes and never pay for them, because outside "aid" cushioned reality.
This period of history has cleared up things. We can see that those countries dependent upon outside aid (Cuba, Afghanistan and Tanzania, yes, but also Israel, Egypt, Angola, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Nicaragua) are failing in all or major areas related to aid.
Even this very week when the Soviets renounced aid to 'f Afghanistan, the Swedes voted out of office the aid-giving Social Democrats and voted in a central-right coalition, one of whose tenets is the end of aid to Africa.
It's about time. Even the most objective observer can see now that Scandinavian largess to Tanzania has hurt the country by allowing it to destroy its originally working education system and embark upon unproductive land ventures.
The effective end of this era does not, however, have to mean the end of generous assistance from one blessed land to another less blessed. It only means giving it realistically.
Bush is criticized for depending on international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for, say, aid to the Soviet Union. To the contrary, this is the sense of the new era, for these institutions have built-in protections against both donor stupidity and receiver manipulation.
Meanwhile, the Afghan war may still go on, if the Afghans want it to. Both sides may, for a while, be supported by interested regional players. But the great distortions from outside, from the "superpowers," should soon be ended.