I have seen the future and it is boring, a "process" described by uncommunicative initials like CHD and CSCE and CBM, an endless and peripatetic series of assemblies itinerating from capital to capital, in which languid diplomats recite lofty fatuities, then adjourn to $50 lunches in expense-account restaurants of bland excellence.
On the other hand, "interesting times," according to the ancient Chinese curse, were to be wished upon one's enemies. Yugoslavia will be interesting this year; the Soviet Union will be interesting. Kashmir, South Africa, China itself may turn out to be more interesting still. At least in boring Europe, things are coming together, not falling apart.
Everybody wants to join the institutions of European unity. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, NATO, the Western military alliance, would seem to be reduced to the sound, as the Buddhist conundrum put it, of one hand clapping. Yet Hungary has expressed interest in joining, and Czechoslovakia's foreign minister, Jiri Dienstbier, said last April that the only thing wrong with NATO is that "we do not belong to it."
Similarly, countries are lining up to join Europe's Economic Community: Austria, Cyprus, Malta, Turkey, and just behind them, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. But the community has put them on hold, because its 12 members are preoccupied with harmonizing their own national laws and social policies. The process is symbolized by the number "1992" -- that is, next year, by the end of which there is to be a single market in goods, services and labor from Ireland to Greece, from Denmark to Portugal.
This coming-together of countries is what Francis Fukuyama had in mind last year in his much-reviled phrase "the end of history."
It is not that nothing will ever happen again, now that "we" have won the Cold War. But the end of the Cold War represents, at least for the time being, a consensus on the issues of nationhood, religion and ideology that have been driving history for the last 200 years in Europe and North America: a consensus in favor of nation-states ruled by liberal democratic political institutions.
Some countries are not yet ready to join the consensus, Mr. Fukuyama acknowledged, and this is why Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait: Much of the world, he said, is still "mired in history." Even Europe has a few kinks in its consensus -- Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Basque nationalism.
But for the most part, Europe's nations -- France and Germany, Britain and Russia and the rest -- for the first time in several centuries have no grudges, no claims on each other. The great questions have become petty questions, boring questions: How does the liberal democratic state deliver health care? How does it secure the rights of minorities? These are not the grand challenges that lead nations to war.
And so, together, the nations whose history has ended are exploring the institutions that seem to offer promise of achieving the purposes of liberal democratic society. These are the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has provided military security; the Common Market, or European Community, which has increased the economic prosperity of its members; and, strangest of all, something called "the Helsinki process," which seems to be shaping the ideas that define what it means to be "European."
There is another, less rarefied reason Europe is uniting -- the new fact of a united Germany.
The Cold War had a certain mad stability. Countries lined up behind one of the superpowers or carved out identities as "neutral" or "non-aligned." Even neutrality operated within well understood limits. Finland's freedom from Soviet domination, for example, required avoiding even the appearance of provocation; hence, for many years there was no Finnish-language translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago." Finns read it instead in Swedish, for Sweden's neutrality required ever-so-slightly less deference to Moscow.
When the Cold War's overt structures and tacit understandings, which took more than 40 years to build, were swept away within months, tensions and disputes that had been put on hold -- such as the national rivalries within the Soviet Union -- erupted suddenly, but mostly in the former Communist bloc. In the West, the collapse of the Soviet bloc gave impetus to centripetal, not centrifugal, tendencies.
For years it was said that the only thing that held the 16 NATO nations together was fear of the Soviet Union. That fear is gone, but the alliance has not flown apart. Even though the think-tankers and pundits are strained to describe a convincing purpose for NATO, the alliance continues to meet quite specific needs of its members -- and even of its erstwhile enemies.