The tides of history

Flora Lewis

December 27, 1990|By Flora Lewis

PARIS — AS THE year comes to an end, so does my tenure of this space. I will continue writing in somewhat different formats, but this is a moment to look back and try to draw meaning from what we have experienced and then, in another column, try to look forward.

There has been a concrete sense in the last few years of a flood tide of history, bursting through a dam of fixed assumptions. That is normal; history never flows at a steady pace.

But neither do its cycles recur in precise pattern. There is also underlying movement responding to real changes in the way people live and think.

The Victorian idea of inevitable progress had to be abandoned. It was based on development of industry and the sudden spurt of the sciences. That created possibilities that had scarcely been dreamed of, but we learned they weren't all for the better. Neither were they all for the worse.

They brought new ideas about what society could and should do. Some were implacably arrogant, fascism and communism, still rooted in the old concept of organizing people against the enemy and in abstract certainties. They left no room for doubt, which drives history. Communism claimed "scientific" verity, which even science is no longer so sure about.

Those ideas, and the hatred on which they relied, could truss up parts of the world, but they couldn't hold it still. People became aware of their surroundings, and authority lost its capacity of control when they began to question instead of accepting in resignation what they felt powerless to affect. That has been spreading for a long time. The sudden breakthrough came when a critical dimension was reached. It can't be undone.

The yearning for democracy comes with wanting to be an actor, not just an object, in the decision of one's fate, and the sense that all is not fore-ordained. But it isn't really true that democracy rules out aggressive war. Grievance, desire for vengeance, fear, greed can coexist with democracy and make it belligerent.

Democracy does make it harder to convince people that war is noble, a sacred mission, the only way to win a place in the jungle of nations and protect it. This is a deep cultural change but it has yet to invest the world.

The tide is moving slowly against the old instinct that attack is the best defense, but it is moving because of a new understanding that no part of the world can be truly isolated. Many people know what is going on far away, and that it will somehow affect them. They have seen the whole planet filmed from space, and indeed it is a single globe.

The contrasting currents of rival sovereignties are the result of these developments. The village, the tribe, the nation arose as protective associations throughout the story of civilization. They organized against the outsider and command fierce loyalties, so much that they provide a definition of identity.

They create a community of language, of culture, of belief, of the dignity that every human seeks. No wonder that when alien rule can successfully be challenged, there is a tremendous urge to independence, to deliberately stress distinctions between "us" and "them." Nationalism is on the rise wherever rule was imposed from outside.

But this renewed surge of nationalism comes at a time when hTC independence can be seen more as an illusion. People are inescapably at the mercy of their neighbors if they are not to live as hermits, and all are becoming neighbors. The question is only whether force or consent and cooperation will dominate their relations.

That lay behind the ideas of Jean Monnet when he conceived of what has become the European Community, as his Dutch associate Max Kohnstamm recently pointed out. The economy of size, the mutual benefit of opening markets and reliable institutions created the incentives to pool jealously cherished bits of sovereignty, step by step.

"What gives me so much hope is that the Community shows it is possible to change structures that enclose nations in seemingly unbreakable vicious circles," Kohnstamm said. Monnet's purpose was to

Launch a "process of change that would bring a new structure of international relations, protected and constrained by laws uniting people in common responsibilities."

That tide is only beginning to rise, but it too is part of change in our time. In fits and starts, the world is going that way because it has to. Whether they make dramatic headlines or are barely discernible, the impulses of history are moving.

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