Santa Fe, New Mexico. ALREADY the phrase, ''new world order,'' has become a cliche, the mantra of diplomats, think tankers and writers. There is no escaping it, for the old order is being transformed. But to what? These are bad times for script-writers. All know that the traditional players must reappear in new roles, but the roles are being shaped by events thus far beyond control.
Elements change with bewildering speed. Most recently the Mideast crisis set geopoliticians to recasting, recognizing that the outcome will affect what happens elsewhere. Before that it was the unexpected leap to German unification.
And before that it was the collapse of the Soviet system, as political freedom unleashed ethnic furies and exposed the failures of both the old and the new economic structures. Confronting the unknown, all who cherish predictability may feel a twitch of nostalgia for the Cold War.
These events present both glowing promise and terrifying threat. For Americans, first priority goes of course to the Mideast confrontation, followed by the danger of bloody upheaval in the Soviet Union, European economic unity in 1992 and its impact on the U.S., and the related test whether German wealth can redeem German commitments. Some assumed verities, such as American economic stability and decisive leadership, perhaps may not be assumed. What is certain is that the leaders who best manage the agenda will have the most to say about the future order.
Right after the mid-'80s, as Mikhail Gorbachev capitulated in the Cold War, scholars and diplomats thought they had a handle on it. Four centers of influence would dominate, they said -- America, Western Europe, the Soviet Union and Japan.
America had problems, but its economic and military power would preserve its leadership of the democracies. Western Europe would gain political confidence with economic power but could not shed its American dependence. Moscow, despite growing instability, would continue to speak for a loose communist coalition. Japan's economic might would create political and possibly military influence, but self-interest would keep Japan, like Europe, close to the U.S. Some details were missing, the theorists conceded, but they had little doubt about the general pattern of the emerging ''new world order.''
From what's now visible, they had most of the players right. There was no predicting that the Berlin Wall would go, and that Germany would unite a year later, instantly becoming first among equals in Europe.
But the theorists missed badly on the script for others. The depth of the Soviet upheaval escaped them. They must now reckon with East European countries individually, no longer as Soviet satellites. They agreed then and they agree now that the North Atlantic Alliance will endure, but no one is confident of its structure, especially the quality of American leadership. Enlightened Germans, anguished by European history and more narrowly by their own, desperately urge America to keep troops in Germany and to remain deeply committed.
President Bush and congressional leaders acknowledge the need, but they talk more of bringing the boys home. Their emphasis, though understandable, is misplaced. True, voters favor a peace dividend over gobbledygook about geopolitical imperatives. Yet at some point they need to be told that many Americans, not just token numbers, must remain in Europe for stability though the welcome wears thin. No one has seriously tried to get the message across. The administration, deep in crisis management, is unwilling to overload its diplomacy with its allies while it needs their help in the Mideast.
In the Western Pacific are the first glimmers of a new constellation. Many strategists have long wondered why the Soviet Union did not return to Japan the Kurile Islands, which it has held since World War II. With that, Siberia could be opened to Japanese investment and technology the Soviets desperately need. One statesman suggests unkindly that the Soviets may have been looking ahead, worrying about how to get the Japanese out once they are in.
But now the signals are changing abruptly. Compromise about the Kuriles is in the wind. Diplomatic relations, a development that will give American strategists the willies once they confront it, could come next year. It might happen even if continued erosion of the Soviet Union means Russia, not the union, negotiating with Japan.
In the tumult American policy makers appear uncertain how to wield the influence of the surviving superpower. It is only moderately arrogant to suggest that what's good for America is good for most of the world, and vice versa. But the U.S. has neither will nor resources to use heavy muscle on more than one big issue at once.
Most strategists feel they serve best by concentrating on the Middle East. ''We are not giving the time needed to the possible breakup of the Soviet Union or to developments in Europe,'' one concedes. Yet he draws a direct line from the Mideast to the system, visible only in the faintest outline, that will follow the current shakeout. The U.S., he says, must emerge from the confrontation as the dominant world power, as it did after World War II, ''or the next generation will pay an enormous price.''
Mr. Trewhitt, a former diplomatic correspondent of The Sun, teaches at the University of New Mexico.