PARIS. — Paris -- Secretary of State James Baker's address Tuesday in Berlin to the Aspen Institute was potentially the most important American policy statement since the Cold War began in the 1940s. One has to qualify that statement because of the shadow that lies between the word and the act.
But Mr. Baker's speech marked not only a departure from what until now has been said about the American role in the aftermath of the Cold War, but was of an intelligence and breadth -- and a sobriety -- rare in the official American discourse of recent years.
Its fundamental point was recognition of the crucial accomplishment of the last four decades: the creation of what one may call the Commonwealth of Democracies, the intimate and creative association among the democratic states that has developed since World War II and which today provides them with a moral authority far more significant than the economic and material dominance they also enjoy.
This is the true ''new world order.'' We have not paid attention to the fact that such an order already exists.
Mr. Baker recalled the organizations of formal cooperation among the democracies: NATO in the security sphere, the European Community, the Council of Europe; International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Group of 7 in economic matters; General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade for trade cooperation -- and now the infant Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Helsinki Conference group of nations, which associates the democracies with the Soviet Union and those East European countries in the course of establishing representative political institutions.
The secretary of state could have added that an even richer system of cooperation exists informally or privately among the democracies, conducting a dialog of immense complexity, covering everything from matters of high science and scholarship to the trivialities of consumer fad and popular entertainment.
Multinational industries, international trading groups, political action groups, charities, university alliances and exchanges, scientific, cultural and professional conferences and associations, international professional journals, an international newspaper and magazine press which never existed before, international radio and television, simple individual or group travel and tourism -- all these together have created an interchange of information and intensity of interaction among the advanced democratic states which is of unprecedented breadth and consequence. We take it all for granted.
All this exists because our Commonwealth of the Democracies is a commonwealth of values. As Mr. Baker said in Berlin, ''These values are based upon the concept of individual political rights and economic liberty rooted in European ideas of the 17th and 18th centuries and first planted in the new American nation.''
These values radiated outward from American and then French revolutions, and through the development of the European parliamentary and legal systems in the 19th century, to influence a major part of the world. An individual today travels in North America and Western Europe, and now nearly everywhere in Eastern Europe and Latin America, and in Japan, Oceania and the democratic countries elsewhere, confident that the rule of law prevails, that an individual and his rights to autonomy, privacy and liberty of speech will generally be respected and that injustices, when they occur, will be addressed by political authority.
This is a recent and fragile accomplishment. Just five years ago, if you flew into Prague or Bucharest or Moscow, you knew that a finite risk existed of secret police harassment or arrest, against which no logic might prevail, with no recourse available. If you go to most of Africa and much of the Near East and Middle East today, or to parts of Asia, you know that power is arbitrarily held and employed and that you could find yourself the victim of brutalities or of the political paranoia of arbitrary leaders. To the people who live there, this is daily reality.
The astounding achievement of our day is that this second world of despotic authority is in decline and the world of liberties and the rule of law is mounting in strength and influence. There is no fatality about this. Ten or 15 years ago, the opposite was believed to be happening. Many in the democracies themselves believed democracy incapable of holding off the totalitarian challenge.
I have made an argument in the past that in national life, being is superior to doing -- that the quality and values of a society are what ultimately count. They are what make a nation a success or a failure. What a country actually does on the world scene, and what happens to it in history, derive in crucial respects from what it is: from its fundamental qualities.