President-elect Bush will take over next month during a period of unusual international harmony, with both the Soviet Union and the Palestine Liberation Organization sounding increasingly moderate.

Foreign forces are likely to begin withdrawing from southern Africa and Soviet troops should be about to conclude their scheduled departure from Afghanistan.These are good portents for Bush but history shows how ephemeral peaceful interludes can be. Just ask Jimmy Carter.

It was just 10 years ago - in December 1978 - that Carter could look out at the world with an air of confidence, able to boast three foreign policy breakthroughs that won him widespread, albeit temporary, admiration.

Over a period of a few months, Carter successfully guided the Panama Canal treaties past a skeptical Senate, reached agreement with China on the establishment of diplomatic relations and - his most shining achievement - spurred the Camp David breakthrough between Egypt and Israel.

At the end of 1978, Carter's standing in the polls had risen to 50 percent, high by standards of the time, and he seemed destined for a second term in the White House.

Then came 1979, a year which ranks among the most disastrous endured by any president. The year began with the ouster of the pro-Western monarchy in Iran and its replacement by an avowedly anti-American Islamic fundamentalist regime. It ended with the seizure of American hostages in Tehran and their detention for 444 days.

Indeed, the takeover of the American embassy there was part of a pattern of anti-American turmoil in Islamic countries in the fall of 1979. In the space of one month, the U.S. embassies in Iran, Libya and Pakistan were attacked by mobs.

Before the year was out, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, starting a downward spiral in superpower relations that wasn't reversed for years.

The invasion induced Carter to slap a grain embargo on the Soviets, to withdraw from the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow and to shelve the SALT II treaty, which had been the centerpiece of a June summit meeting between Carter and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev.

It seemed a new development buffeted the Carter administration every month. Vietnamese troops occupied neighboring Cambodia. Leftists took control in Nicaragua, paving the way for perhaps the most divisive foreign policy issue of the Reagan presidency: U.S. backing for the Nicaraguan Contras.

Almost unnoticed at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the collapse of a coalition government in El Salvador, which in turn laid the groundwork for a civil war that claimed the lives of an average of 800 civilians a month in 1980.

On the domestic front, the news for Carter was no better. By year's end, inflation reached 12 percent, the result in large measure of a hefty midyear price increase decreed by the oil export cartel.

There also was the widespread perception that Carter looked foolish when his subordinates claimed to have "discovered" in the late summer of 1979 the presence of a Soviet brigade in Cuba, only to concede later that the brigade had been there for years.

Carter's showing in the polls dipped to 32 per cent in October after the brigade fiasco, reviving somewhat by year's end because of initial public support for his handling of the hostage crisis.

But restiveness within the Democratic party over Carter's performance was such that Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., decided in November 1979 to challenge him for the party's 1980 presidential nomination. Carter survived that challenge but lost 44 states in his re-election bid. He never recovered from the 1979 debacle.

In contrast to that dismal era, the world nowadays seems downright tame. Being president seems easier than it did in 1979. Or was Ronald Reagan just more fortunate than his hard-luck predecessor?