FROM a bipolar world to - what? For 45 years, the billowing tent of global interdependence that shelters all of us from nuclear chaos was stretched taut over a structure whose twin poles of American and Soviet power provided - by anomalous virtue of the way they pulled against each other - a measure of strategic stability.
Now, one of these poles has been pulled out. The once-firm Soviet Union has disintegrated into segments that are fractious, impoverished, and (too many of them) nuclear-armed.
So what is to become of the structure of the global tent? Can one pole (a "victorious" United States) hold it up on its own?
An influential group within the Pentagon clearly thinks that this is possible. These were the authors of a draft "Defense Planning Guidance" paper that describes how the US should design a worldwide, American-dominated security system for the post-cold-war age.
That paper referred at length to the need to prevent the emergency or consolidation of unnamed "potential competitors." It strongly implied that such a competitor might emerge, not only from the former Soviet lands, but also from Western Europe, east Asia, or southwest Asia. "The United States should be postured to act independently when collective action cannot be orchestrated," the draft said.
Such a mindset may seem very blinkered to those who hope that the coming years will bring increased global cooperation. But look kindly on the generals and the civilians who work in the Pentagon. For more than 40 years, now, we have invested in them, structured whole careers for them, and tasked them to plan to fight the ultimate war. When it comes to looking at the really pressing big-picture issues in today's world - issues of North-South and North-North relations, economic interdependence, environment al degradation, mass migration, new challenges in weapons proliferation, battles of different value systems - we shouldn't expect them to be rocket scientists there, too!
But we do need expert evaluators of these issues somewhere in our policymaking structure, and preferably at the very top. It is at this level that the blinkered vision of the present administration looks most troubling. Neither the president nor any of his Cabinet officers has taken the trouble to explain beyond broad platitudes what role they seek for the US in the post-bipolar world.
We know very little about the kind of global structure George Bush would seek if reelected president. Snippets, yes: He's reluctant to go to the world environmental summit in June, reluctant to keep support for democratization at the top of the global agenda. Platitudes, yes - plenty. But a "vision thing" for the post-bipolar world? We haven't seen it yet.
Nor, to be fair, have we seen it from any of the other presidential candidates except Patrick Buchanan. So a plea to the other candidates: Spell out, if you please, the role you see the US playing in the world! For a start, could you answer the following questions:
* Do you feel confident about explaining to inner-city Americans why their tax money should go to foreign aid, and what this aid does for them?
* Can you describe the optimal mix between military, economic, and moral power in the world of the 1990s?
* Do you have concrete proposals for restructuring the United Nations?
* Do you see any link between American arms sales abroad and weapons proliferation cycles in unstable parts of the world?
* Do you see any link between support for democratization and non-proliferation policy worldwide?
Let's force the candidates to think through these big-picture issues. For one of them, this time next year, will be in command of the folk in the Pentagon. And if his vision on these issues is faulty, or incomplete, then it is on his watch that the ill-tethered global tent - now already flapping dangerously at some edges - might billow finally, disastrously, out of control.