Washington — Forty years after the end of the most devastating war in history, the world can point to a period of unprecedented progress in individual freedom, liberation from want, and peace. It also faces new hazards and challenges. As nations of West and East pause this week to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, diplomats, economists, and historians see a lot of ``good news'' to record, even while noting some disturbing trends:
For all the fears of a nuclear confrontation, a global war has been avoided for four long decades, and without sacrificing the major interests of the West. The Atlantic Alliance has proved to be one of the most stable in history; this, combined with nuclear deterrence, has created a balance between East and West in which neither is apt to adopt a policy that leads to nuclear war.
Some 160 nations have political independence today. Most of them have been absorbed in the market economy of the West rather than into the communist system.
The vast majority of international boundary disputes have been settled peacefully.
Interdependence has brought enormous gains in living standards, diet, and health care in the industrialized countries and appreciable progress in much of the developing world. Many newly emergent countries now play a major role in the trading system.
Political institutions have yet to catch up with the global movement toward economic integration. The Common Market, for instance, has built a strong foundation but falls short of the unity required for further advancement.
While this is still a bipolar world, the superpowers' influence is declining in relative terms. The US retains its primacy as a moral, economic, and political force. But both the US and USSR find countries acting more independently of either superpower.
What impresses experienced policy-makers most is the long period of general peace that mankind has enjoyed.
``Each year we put behind us the fact that nuclear weapons have not been fired in anger,'' says former Secretary of State Dean Rusk. ``This is an antidote for our young people. We have learned that the fingers on the nuclear trigger are not itchy.
``That is no guarantee for the future,'' Mr. Rusk quickly adds. ``We and the Soviets should not play games of chicken with each other.''
The West's adversary relationship with the Soviet Union is a continuing challenge that was not fully anticipated 40 years ago. Europe remains divided, and nuclear arms are relied on to keep the peace.
``The fact that our stability is still based on a balance of terror, that we could not find a better basis for international harmony and tranquillity, is disappointing,'' says Dimitri Simes, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In the decades ahead, many experts believe, mankind will face problems of a different nature -- those concerning energy, the environment, population, and food. ``We should be going flat out to help our children and grandchildren to help face them,'' comments Rusk. ``We're not doing that and we are cheating them.''
Even while economies have grown more interdependent, economists say, the world's political systems are not prepared for the new integration. That is why it is proving difficult to strengthen the international trading system. But the problems cannot overshadow the amount of progress made.
``The accomplishments in the developing countries and in the industrialized world have exceeded all expectations a generation ago,'' says Jeffrey Schott of the Institute for International Economics. ``Many of the problems we now face are due to success. . . . Interdependence simply has brought its complications. But the glass is more than half full.''
Diplomatic observers also point to the magnitude of the political transformation in recent decades. Two-thirds of the world's people have seen the whole fabric of their leadership change, and this has been done with relatively little major disruption -- India and Indochina notwithstanding.
But, experts add, the West has not been effectual in dealing with the nations that have emerged from the decoloniza-tion process.
``We have had a naive attitude about decolonization and how the nations would see their destinies tied in with the West, and we haven't come to grips with that,'' says David Newsom, director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. ``The major democracies like India find themselves more nonaligned than we would like and we tend to see the manifestation of their independence in the East-West context.''
Islamic fundamentalism, too, is viewed in part as a reaction to the persisting influence of the West in the post-independent period following World War II. ``You did not have immediately a strong assertion of indigenous economic, cultural, and religious values,'' says Mr. Newsom. ``As that period faded, as disillusionment in the post-independence period arose, and as problems like the Arab-Israeli dispute remained unresolved, people began searching for answers to their dilemmas and they began going back to earlier roots and values they thought became corrupted.''
A danger today, experts agree, is that this search for new answers is allied with a tendency toward terrorism, creating a whole new problem for the West.
Clark Clifford, a former secretary of defense, say he believes the world is no better or worse off as a result of nationalist conflicts. ``They go on and seem to have a momentum of their own,'' he says. ``But the one new factor . . . is the possibility that some country involved in this kind of difficulty might develop a nuclear device. We can't settle the disputes; they are reasonably well contained. But if one gets a nuclear device, the world could be thrown into turmoil.''
Ironically, the superpowers often find themselves unable to dominate events even in their own spheres of influence. ``The Soviets are unable to subdue Afghanistan,'' says Mr. Clifford. ``They could do it, but at a risk they're not willing to take because of the world attitude.''
In Lebanon, he notes, the US could not find a way to retaliate except with ineffectual naval bombardment. The lesson, he believes, is that the US must refrain from sending forces abroad.
At the same time the US is widely perceived as the driving force of global progress. ``It's the country that has been most decisive in bringing changes about,'' says Joseph Sisco, a former US undersecretary of state. ``Even in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe there has been a loosening.'' But, says Mr. Sisco, following the experience of the Vietnam war, today's generation often demands too much of its leaders.
``I'm struck that too many people, especially the younger generation, are saying, `We've got to know where we're going, we have to define the national interest, the American people have to be informed, Congress has to support the executive.' This epitomizes a search for guarantees in a dangerous nuclear world that is impossible. The logic of it is a prescription for paralysis.''
``We're at the point where the bubble is about as inflated as it can be,'' says Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University.