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Americans' understanding of Soviet politics has long had little resemblance to reality. Thus, an event such as the recent resignation of the foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, seems inexplicable.

Until we drop our illusions about Mikhail Gorbachev -- principally, that he is fighting the forces of darkness to establish a democracy -- we cannot hope to develop a coherent policy based on our own strategic interests.

When Gorbachev came to power it was said he wanted no reform, only discipline. Then he was turned into a veritable Andrei Sakharov, supported in the Politburo only by his aide and confidant Aleksandr Yakovlev and Shevardnadze, and in the population only by the radical intelligentsia. When the radicals began leaving the Communist Party last summer we accepted uncritically their view that Gorbachev is irrelevant, with his country breaking up and his system collapsing.

In fact, far from irrelevant and powerless, the Soviet president is engaged in a relentless consolidation of power. Contrary to the picture presented in the media, he is not threatened by disorder and disintegration. Rather, he is using the threat of chaos to justify tough action. There is no danger that the Soviet Union will break up, only a question of how much force will be needed to hold it together.

Soviet radicals and their American spokesmen foolishly went along with Gorbachev's wild exaggeration of the dangers of famine, disintegration and disorder. The radicals thought they could create a revolutionary situation such as existed in Russia in February 1917. Some of their American friends, particularly in the media and academia, had the same goals and illusions.

The radicals have helped to create such an impression of chaos that they cannot count on the population to resist military action to restore order. Gorbachev must have known about the strength of Shevardnadze's feelings and he must have calculated he could control the consequences.

The likeliest scenario is that Gorbachev will continue to introduce his policies -- radical economic reform and real federalism within the existing boundaries of the country -- in an authoritarian manner and that the legislative bodies will supinely go along.

The president neither needs nor wishes to dissolve local legislative bodies. Instead, he wants to maneuver them into taking some of the politically most difficult decisions, so he can blame them if his policies backfire.

In this last scenario Gorbachev will risk destroying the illusion that he is committed, first of all, to democracy. At home this would not be a problem; democratic institutions would be discredited by their chaos.

The real troubles would occur abroad. But they would be greater for the United States than for Gorbachev.

By selling its Soviet policy in personalized terms Washington has set itself a familiar trap. When the favored ruler fails to live up to our billing we find ourselves supporting, and dependent upon, a dictator. This could be happening with Gorbachev.

Washington needs him far more than he needs the United States. Can we denounce him during the Iraq crisis? Even after it is over can we afford to have him return to the old Soviet policy in the Middle East?

If Gorbachev were to crack down on radical nationalists in the republics, would we withhold liberalization of trade? Perhaps, but would we not fear that Gorbachev would cut immigration?

And just as Gorbachev dealt with the German chancellor Helmet Kohl to obtain what he wanted in Germany, so he will deal with Japan in 1991 and 1992. Can we afford to let the European Economic Community and Japan dominate the trade and investment of a country of 300 million people and an economy larger than Japan's?

We need to dash our illusions about foreign policy. It should not be based on a personal relationship with this or that foreign minister or leader.

It is not a relationship only with democratic leaders. We deal with authoritarian rulers in Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. We must deal with the Soviet Union on the basis of our security and economic interests.

Our economic interests are to integrate the Soviet Union into the world economy and to gain a foothold in the Soviet market. Our security interests are to make the Soviet Union part of the European defense community against potential threats from Asia.

JERRY HOUGH, fellow of the Brookings Institution, heads Duke University's Center of East-West Trade, Investment and Communications.

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