"Start with the recognition that something profound has happened," said former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, reflecting on the changes sweeping the world. "This is a new epoch. That doesn't mean everything is different--but it means all the important things are different."
For five centuries, history seemed to move--with frequent reverses and sidetracks, of course--largely in one direction: toward a single, global civilization based on universal democracy, free trade and secular governance by increasingly powerful nation-states.
But now history has bumped into new realities, from the revival of ethnic and religious fervor to the increasing obsolescence of the nation-state. Is this, as some have argued, the "end" of the historical progression? Is it a return to an earlier age, the game of nations of the centuries before the Cold War? Or is it a transition to a new path?
We are still caught in midstream; our vision is still too close up. When Columbus returned home to Spain five centuries ago, he believed that he had found the Indies; it never occurred to him that he had, instead, found an entire hemisphere and helped invent the modern world. Like Columbus, we may need another decade or two of exploration before we know exactly where we are.
The least that can be said is that we are entering an age of paradox:
* A world that is becoming simultaneously more violent and less dangerous--more warlike in some ways, more pacific in others. For every conflict resolved, from Berlin to Managua, a new one springs up to take its place.
* A world in which the United States stands uncontested as a global leader--the organizer and spearhead of a vast alliance in the Persian Gulf--yet finds its power more circumscribed than at any time in a century. The real change has not been the historically common redistribution of power among a few big countries, but a wholesale diffusion of influence among countries, corporations and populist groups of many stripes.
* A world in which nations still pursue power and wealth, but sometimes find that the best way to gain more power is to surrender some to others. Witness the nations of Western Europe that have found greater strength and influence than at any time since World War II by yielding sovereignty to the European Community.
* A world in which the quest for new political freedom and the demands of economic competition push societies in two directions at once, integration and disintegration. Czechs and Slovaks, Kashmiris and Croats, all want some variant of the same paradoxical goal: political and cultural autonomy combined with a place in the global economy.
* A world in which the standard of living of billions of people surges ahead, accompanied by a rising sense of dissatisfaction. From the new democracies of Eastern Europe and Latin America to the emerging economies of India and Thailand, people expect democracy to bring an approximation of the Western prosperity they see on their television screens.
Compared to this new world of paradox, the 40-year-long Cold War was an era of unusual clarity: two superpowers, two economic systems, two competing creeds, each fully occupied with the overriding purpose of besting the other.
The challenge facing President Bush and Americans today is more ambiguous. As a people, Americans like their foreign policy to join the national interest with solid principles. But how far can that be carried in such a fragmented and tumultuous world?
Bush for one has insisted that the United States must continue its world leadership. And he has made gestures toward defining a new goal, especially in his speeches explaining the dispatch of U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia: "Out of these troubled times . . . a new world order can emerge . . . " he told Congress.
What the Administration has failed to do is develop a plan for achieving that new world order.
"We need a strategic concept, and we aren't hearing one," said Paul H. Nitze, who helped draft President Harry S. Truman's strategies for containing communism. Last spring, the 83-year-old ex-Cold War warrior drafted another one, much as he had 43 years before. "The central theme the United States should support in the future is the accommodation and protection of diversity, " he wrote--"a world climate in which a large array of political groupings can emerge, each in its own individual, and perhaps eccentric, way."
Whether it is Nitze's vision or something else, the objectives of a strategy for the decades ahead will be complex. One element must be preventing the outbreak of major wars. Another must be enhancing America's economic competitiveness. But the nation must do more than avoid military conflagration and make money. It must renew its own vision--for the sake of its own people and for millions around the world who still look to America for evidence that ideals can be made real.