LONDON — London. -- When I left school in 1958 the world was a mess. There was a Cold War on, and we lived with the imminent threat of a hot war fought with nuclear weapons.
Everybody in the developed world was spending a fortune on the arms race, and there were seven foreign armies camped on the soil of a divided Germany. All Europe was divided by the ''Iron Curtain'' -- and down in what we had not yet learned to call the Third World, the two sides were fighting proxy wars in other people's countries.
It was a miserable time, and 30 years later, in late 1988, everything was still the same: the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war, a divided Germany in a divided Europe, and proxy wars raging across the Third World from Nicaragua and Angola to Afghanistan and Cambodia.
Now it has all been swept away.
What is more, it has been swept away peacefully. The Cold War collapsed, the danger of nuclear war receded below the horizon, Germany reunited, Eastern Europe de-communized, the Iron Curtain vanished, and finally the Soviet empire simultaneously democratized and dismantled itself -- and the total butcher's bill for all this change was under a thousand violent deaths.
Historical change does tend to come in sudden great lurches, after long periods of stability. But the normal pattern is for these great bursts of change to be accompanied by massive amounts of violence and to produce many disastrous consequences. (The two previous lurches in this century are known as the First and Second World Wars.)
This time, we have had a comparable magnitude of change without the usual slaughter. Moreover, almost all the change has been for the better. (That is a subjective judgment, I know, but which change would you like reversed? Should we re-divide Germany? Or re-communize Russia?)
When you combine the fact that the changes this time are overwhelmingly beneficial with the extraordinary non-violence of the process, you have serious grounds for suspicion that something is up. That, in fact, the world may be changing in fundamental ways.
The principal theme in all this change, in Europe and at the global level, is the very rapid, non-violent spread of democracy. In the past dozen years, the number of people living in democratic or rapidly democratizing countries has practically doubled, from one-third to two-thirds of the world's population. And this process, too, has been almost entirely non-violent.
At the end of the '70s, democracy in Latin America had dwindled to only a handful of little countries. Now, there are only a couple of dictatorships left. And here it is not primarily Communist regimes but right-wing military governments that have fallen victim to the non-violent demand for democracy.
Chile's Pinochet, Argentina's generals, and Haiti's Duvaliers have been swept out by the same tide that did for the Honeckers and the Husaks of Eastern Europe. (Yes, I know there was a coup in Haiti, but look at the pattern.)
In Africa the phenomenon is much more recent, but today a move from dictatorship or one-party rule to multi-party democracy is under way in at least half the continent's countries. The shift is already an accomplished fact in Benin, Gabon, Namibia and Zambia. The formerly one-party states of Algeria, Angola, Congo, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo are having elections.
Even in South Africa, the race to ''re-integrate and democratize'' the country has begun (perhaps too late, but better late than never). And though there are doubtless countries where the process of democratization will suffer serious setbacks (Togo is having a rough time at the moment, for example), the overall pattern is quite consistent.
The pattern in Asia has been equally clear: from the Philippines to South Korea to Taiwan. Asia is also the continent where non-violent movements demanding democracy have been drowned in blood, in China and Burma. But these two exceptions mainly serve to underline the new rule: In most countries, most of the time, force is no longer the final arbiter.
The reason democracy has come by non-violent means to countries as different as Bangladesh and Benin, Czechoslovakia and Chile is only partly the confidence and new techniques of protesters who have seen it work elsewhere. The media play a big role in the process, but they affect the rulers even more than the ruled.
Naive people imagine that most things in this world are settled by guns. In fact, most things are settled by what is in people's minds -- and though contemporary tyrants do not accept the values of democracy and human rights, their consciousness has already been infiltrated by them. The result is that non-democratic rulers nowadays usually lack the conviction of their own righteousness that is needed to order large numbers of people killed. So, very often, they are defeated non-violently.