In a sense, the collapse of communism, the end of the Cold War and the surge of democracy during the last years of the 1980s may have been only the first wave of an even broader transformation.
"Behind all those changes there is a changed world--and I think the world has changed before our mind is changing," said Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres. "Actually, there are more changes in reality than changes in ideology. Ideology is a latecomer."
Of the major currents in modern politics, he said: "All three, I think, have passed away: communism, socialism and capitalism. Nothing is left. The capitalists are loaded with social responsibilities . . . communism is a total failure . . . socialism was wavering in between."
Political thinking, in short, has yet to catch up with events.
"Things are changing faster on the ground than we . . . have been able to revise our conceptual categories," said Egyptian social critic Saad Eddin Ibrahim. "It used to be that intellectuals were ahead of changes on the ground. Now all of a sudden we find that the changes are running faster than our ability to generate new schemes to understand things."
That has left a vacuum, in both the fledgling new democracies and the stable old ones.
Public opinion in almost every country reflects deep disaffection with political institutions. A Times Mirror poll conducted earlier this year found that 57% of Americans feel ordinary people have no say in what the government does and 53% feel that elected officials don't care what the people think.
Similarly, in interviews with leading politicians and ex-politicians about what the most important issues of the 1990s would be, four answers came up time and again. Three of the priorities were predictable: managing national economies in a time of global competition, maintaining industrial growth without destroying the environment and building a new world order to replace the discarded structure of the Cold War.
But the fourth recurring theme was unexpected: how to revitalize democracy itself.
The structural problems of Western democracy pale, of course, before the failures of communism. But the political, economic, social and technological transformations of the current period suggest that democracy may also need to evolve.
"Democracy will have to be reinvented," Gianni De Michelis, the foreign minister of Italy, said recently. "We will have to move from what I call Newtonian democracy, based on a mechanistic understanding of science and culture, to democracy based on systems theory--interaction and flexible feedback with no fixed flow of information and power from top to bottom or bottom to top.
"Newtonian democracy was suited to simple societies with a small number of very active decision-makers. Today, a new type of citizen is possible because of modern individualism" he said.
"Democracy is already evolving quite rapidly," said Francisco Sagasti, a long-range forecaster for the World Bank. "Grass-roots movements have become more important than ever before, and more powerful. Citizens are taking on greater roles in their own destiny.
"The ultimate frontier is going to be that of empowerment," he said. "This means how do you empower people to think for themselves, and then to act?"
The growing strength of grass-roots movements, the reemergence of unusual leftist and rightist groups, the clash of democracy with traditional values, the struggle of impoverished nations to become both free and well-fed--all suggest that the politics of the 1990s will be turbulent and unstable, especially in the less-developed world.
A second Special World Report in next Tuesday's Times will examine the particular threat such forces pose for the very survival of many countries now struggling to maintain their national cohesion. Just as the Iranian Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini sprang from religious passions that took the United States by surprise, such conflicts will involve issues of ethnic culture and nationalistic identity that Americans have often found difficult to gauge or understand.
From Yugoslavia to the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, and from Latin America to Africa and the Middle East, states that lack a strong sense of national identity are in danger of dissolving into civil strife that could send shock waves around the world.
Such conflicts may be particularly violent and deadly because of changes taking place in the nature of warfare. Among the most ominous: the proliferation not only of nuclear and chemical weapons but of ballistic missiles that enable even relatively weak nations to rain mass destruction on their enemies.
And the wars of the next decade and the next century may often be waged in the world's increasingly crowded urban centers, not remote frontiers and rural areas, experts say. They also expect a resurgence of terrorism as desperate minorities lash out at existing governments.