MUCH democratic change swirls elsewhere. But let's recognize the center of stability in the world - the United States, still the most daring democracy, the most in need of keeping a clear head about its continuing world role. In nature, the disruption of a life cycle - a prairie fire, the clearing of a forest - ignites a period of furious growth. Nature works hard to regain stability. If the life cycle of a forest is 150 years, the seedling and sapling years are the most dynamic, biologists say. Toward the end of the cycle, the forest is thick and dark, trees topple and rot; the pulse of change seems to stop.
Political biologists have been warning for some time that the United States, the oldest democracy at 214 years, has reached senescence. Its superpower phase since World War II, enhanced by military, economic, and technological muscle, is subsiding. Japan and other Asian economic upstarts have shown the growth spurt of nascent modern economies. The West European community is aggregating into a more efficient economic unit. And East Europe - there the prairie fire of populist change still smolders.
Britain is the model of decline most often held up for America. Overextension of military might in other parts of the world, an eroding industrial base, surging imports, and protectionist demands which describe the eclipse of early 20th century Britain also apply to the end-of-the-century US.
But here is a paradox. The US remains the least moribund nation, the most open to change.
If you read one more book in March, may I suggest ``Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power'' by Joseph S. Nye Jr., to be published next week by Basic Books. Professor Nye, who teaches at Harvard, considers the arguments about America's reputed decline, inventories its still potent assets, and surveys its continuing responsibilities. He sees ahead not a bipolar world, nor a five-power world, nor the other power combinations commonly anticipated; he expects a world of many smaller units, nations, and nongovernment players such as multinational corporations, all interrelated and interdependent. In this world the US should do just fine.
To expect America to sustain the advantage it held after World War II, having escaped devastation, would be against reason. But if economic ```hegemony' means producing 20-25 percent of the world product and twice as much as any other individual country, American hegemony looks quite secure,'' says Nye colleague Samuel Huntington.
US defense spending had stabilized at about 6 percent of GNP, and now trends in Europe make further cuts in America's peace-force burden likely.
The international institutions the US helped establish, for working out political, economic, trade, monetary, and aid needs of the modern era, all bear the stamp of American methods and values. Multinational corporations, while losing some direct US governmental control, still are run by US managers with Washington allegiance.
American culture delivers ``soft power.'' US popular music, television, jeans set the pace. The American language, says a British scholar, ``has become the lingua franca of the global economy and of transnational and professional groups.'' US universities dominate global learning.
Americans can be insular, Nye says, but ``the ethnic openness of the American culture and the political appeal of the American values of democracy and human rights are a source of international influence.''
True, the US faces social and economic problems - but not greater challenges than it faced in the past.
After two centuries the US is the ``youngest'' democracy. It dares the most: Its separation of powers into three equal branches risks stalling out - as in the current deficit impasse - rather than give too much power to a tie-breaking executive. Look at the authority the Soviets had to give Mikhail Gorbachev in his new role as president to hedge against bureaucratic resistance and lack of trust in voter-run government!
New democratic flags deserve their day in the sun. But don't count out Old Glory.