Out with the Old Order - In with the ...What?

November 25, 1990|By William Pfaff

PARIS — Paris. SEVENTY-SIX YEARS ago, with the outbreak of World War I, a European, and thereby world, order came to an end. It had lasted a century, since the Congress of Vienna.

The upheavals that followed 1914 were the most profound international society had experienced since the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars -- perhaps since the Thirty Years War. Certainly if we measure historical events by the human lives they cost, the French Revolution and the wars that followed cannot rival our 20th century's world wars and campaigns of totalitarian extermination.

Last week in Paris, when 34 chiefs of state and government put their signatures to the end of the Cold War and to a new declaration on human rights, the era begun in 1914 came to an end. It had been a European-dominated era. The principal arenas of conflict and terror were European. What went on in the rest of the world, in the United States, in China and the rest of Asia, in Latin America and Africa, was instigated by European ideas: Marxism, fascism, liberalism (and ''liberation''), revolution, constitutionalism. There were no Chinese, Japanese, Arab or African ideas convulsing Europe or America.

We are now beginning a new era. No one has convincingly described what form it will take. In Washington an ambition rather than a description has been offered, of peaceful &r international relations enforced by an international, or major-power, coalition. As yet this is no more than an expression of good intentions.

We actually see great tension, and the prospect of a war, between countries of the poor but developing non-Western world, particularly those in the Mediterranean Islamic region, and the United States and the other industrial powers.

This is not new; the conflict has existed since international power relations were transformed by the Industrial Revolution and imperialism. Islam and Christian Europe have sporadically been nTC at war since the time of the Crusades. It is only during the last century and a half that the Islamic peoples have found themselves outclassed in power as a consequence of industrial developments and the new forms of organization and government in Europe that followed the Enlightenment.

In this respect, then, we are still in an old world -- older than ideology. We will remain in it for the foreseeable future. This is why it is foolish to think that a military campaign in the gulf, even if successful, can produce some decisive change in the Islamic world and in its relations with us. On the other hand, there are people (on our side as well as theirs) who want to turn this into a holy war between the two civilizations -- as if that could produce anything but death, or lasting misery, for millions.

In Europe as well as Asia, the new era has unpleasant characteristics that are a legacy of that difficult past when nationalities and nationalisms waged uncompromisable conflicts. These were disruptive then and they will not easily be managed now.

In the United States there is a certain bewilderment at the loss of Cold War certainties, coming at the same time the country finds itself economically overextended, its technological and industrial leadership in serious jeopardy, government unresponsive to real needs, a gulf war in prospect which seems to have emerged out of nowhere, and for no clear reason, just when peace was supposed to have broken out.

Thus Thanksgiving this year brought with it a certain sense of loss, in that the rewards of a new era, and of putting the Cold War behind, which Americans had expected to be able to give thanks for just a few months ago, have incomprehensibly been snatched away.

The new era does not begin as an American era. Americans will undoubtedly have a major role to play, but nothing like that of the past 50 years of unchallenged leadership. It certainly will not be a Russian era, unless it becomes one by the ricochet of Russia's internal and national crises.

On the other hand, Europe's eclipse has passed; Europe now again is in the front rank of industrial power and intellectual energy. Asia's eclipse -- a long one, since the 18th century -- may also be ending, although this is not certain. China's inconclusive time of troubles goes on. Japan, of course, while already an economic power of the first importance, remains culturally and politically isolated, its future political role unclear.

It is impossible, of course, to describe an ''era'' when it has only begun. One can make general assessments of the kind above. One can identify what seem to be the important factors at work. One such is nationalism. With the utopian ideologies that dominated the past 75 years discredited, nationalism, ethnic movements and religion are today the most powerful forces of popular mobilization.

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