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THE UNITED STATES and the Soviet Union have worked more and more closely on international issues in the last few years, and in confronting Iraq, they have been almost like allies.

Now they are assuming new roles as the Soviets request food aid and the United States agrees to send it. The relationship resembles that of a victorious but humanitarian America toward vanquished Germany and Japan after World War II.

If anyone still wondered whether the Cold War was over, any doubts would be erased by the astonishing flow of emergency food and aid to the shortage-plagued Soviet Union from around the world. Germany is the main donor, but contributions are going from all parts of Western Europe, Japan, Canada, Israel and India, which was once short of food itself but is now sending a million tons of wheat.

The United States is not offering gifts, but loans to buy American grain, and there is no urgency to go beyond this right now. The action by President Bush is a significant one, providing guaranteed loans up to $1 billion to buy food. The move is a step toward complete normalization of economic relations with the Soviet Union.

Other steps, such as restoration of normal tariffs, are likely to follow as the Soviet Union acts formally to liberalize its emigration laws, particularly in relation to Jews. In practice, the Soviets have already opened
their borders, allowing 200,000 Jews to emigrate this year, but the legislation is still tied up in the turbulent Soviet Parliament.

Bush also took other steps to help the Soviet Union, proposing action by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to assist with aid and advice in the transition to a market economy. This could be a step toward eventual Soviet membership in the international bodies.

The extent of the Soviet food shortages is uncertain, since the nation just harvested bumper crops, but distribution is an increasing problem as the various regions seek independence and stop the flow of food. Hoarding has aggravated the situation. The flood of food aid should help to alleviate fears and improve distribution.

Some in this country remain dubious about the wisdom of strongly supporting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who is unpopular and constantly harassed by separatist tendencies in the Soviet Union.

But critics should understand that Gorbachev is the only person we have to work with at the moment who might be able to prevent the Soviet "Union" from dissolving into chaos.

Bush and Gorbachev will meet in Moscow in February to sign a milestone treaty limiting nuclear missiles. The world would be a lot more dangerous if we had to negotiate with 15 separate republics for control of the 10,000 or more Soviet nuclear warheads.

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