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SPECIAL REPORT: Seeking a New World : Shifting Realities in Global Power : PROLOGUE

December 11, 1990|DOYLE MCMANUS AND ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The ending of the Cold War, like some cataclysmic event of nature, has plunged the world into a period of change so pervasive that a half century of assumptions about the shape of the world and America's role in it are suddenly obsolete. Almost overnight, old tyrannies have dissolved and new vistas of freedom have opened, leaving people blinking in the unaccustomed light.

Yet the dominant characteristic of the new era is not promise but paradox. Powerful currents surge in opposite directions--the threat of war rising in Kuwait, for example, even as tensions evaporate in Europe. The world seems to rush simultaneously forward and backward.

Why?

Because the ending of the Cold War is a symptom of even more profound changes that are remaking old realities in every corner of the world. Indeed, it was those underlying changes that shattered the Communist empire.

The world is experiencing--simultaneously and on a global scale--a transformation of basic economic structures, of the technology that defines productive work, and of the ideologies that guide the conduct of people and nations.

By some reckonings, it has been almost 500 years since the world experienced anything comparable. The last time was the onset of what historians traditionally call the modern era: the age of Christopher Columbus and the great geographical discoveries, the amalgamation of Europe's parochial fiefdoms into the precursors of modern states and empires, the emergence for the first time of a truly planetary society.

From the late 15th century until now, the quest for power in the modern era revolved around the competition among nation-states for territory and markets. Its economics centered on man's effort to claim land, exploit resources and extract profit. Its technology was the mechanical fruit of the Age of Reason. And its politics was the struggle between authoritarian rule and democracy.

Now all these factors are changing.

Today, the relentless logic of economic efficiency and competition is eroding the sovereignty of governments and binding the developed world into a single, integrated market dubbed by some "the international business civilization." Under it, a spiderweb of rules, values and power unites large portions of the globe much as the Roman Empire once brought together diverse people under its laws and culture.

Driving this global economy is a cornucopia of new technology, from molecular biology to microwave communications and the computer. While industries still produce goods, many now depend far more on science and information than on iron ore, chemicals or the control of land.

And in the realm of ideology, after a century of battling the authoritarian disciples of Marxism and Fascism, democracy has apparently come into its own. All at once, it is almost everywhere acknowledged to be the one form of social organization capable of nourishing the diversity and inventiveness that are indispensible to progress.

Instead of ushering in a halcyon period of peace and prosperity, however, this tidal wave of change threatens to flood the world with strife. There are new tensions over trade and technological competition, new conflicts over religion, nationalism and ethnicity, and even new threats of catastrophic war.

In countries such as Poland and Peru, democracy's inability to overcome decades of mismanagement and deliver a better life quickly tempts some to follow charismatic leaders who would limit democratic freedoms. In Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa, peoples freed from the straitjacket of the Cold War threaten to plunge their homelands into uncivil bloodshed. And, as Iraq has demonstrated, the spread of chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons has "democratized" the horrors of unfettered conflict.

How clearly do the American people and their government understand the new world taking shape around them? Will they respond resourcefully and effectively? Or will the United States, weary from the old struggle and frustrated by the new challenges, miss historic opportunities that may not come again? The answers to such questions, perhaps more than any other factor, will shape the course of our lives over the next decade and well into the 21st century.

Shifting Realities in Global Power

POWER: Who's really in control when America has to pass the hat to finance an army in the Persian Gulf?

MONEY: What does it mean when the chairman of Sony is as important as the president of France?

DIPLOMACY: What kind of world is it when old alliances give way to the equivalent of diplomatic one-night stands?

CONFLICT: Who plays peacemaker when the Cold War gives way to a world of fractious Romanias or even Lebanons?

IDEOLOGY: What happens when statesmen no longer ask whether communism can be reformed, but whether democracy can?

"I think we are at an historic transition period in world history. . . . The post-war world is collapsing . . . So now we've got to look ahead, anticipate what might change and then figure out how we need to modify our policies. It's not glamorous. It's hard to do, because you don't really know what's going to happen."

--Brent Scowcroft, National security adviser to the President

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