THE closing years of the 1980s have registered historic triumphs for the cause of freedom, characterized most of all by a tide of national independence rolling throughout the world and especially throughout Eastern Europe. But independence in our time cannot be sustained except through a system of world interdependence. The breakaway from totalitarianism requires a new collective structure in which common problems and concerns can be met by common approaches.
In a sense, the tumultuous events of the '80s, symbolized most of all by the initiatives of Mikhail Gorbachev, are only part of a process in which the logic of history is asserting itself.
If the progression of events favored the retreat of totalitarianism, then the same historical forces now dictate the need for an architecture of world interdependence. Lacking a supporting structure of collective security, the movements for national liberation could degenerate into anarchy.
The surge toward independence inside Eastern Europe represents some of the most glorious achievements in our time, but the process is not without problems. Every major forward movement in history carries within itself potential forces of reversal and disintegration.
Such tremors are already in evidence in the Baltic countries, the Ukraine, Armenia, and several Asian Soviet republics.
It is questionable whether Mr. Gorbachev himself can survive a rapid escalation of such disintegrating forces. The hard-line members of the Politburo may not have been able to hold back Gorbachev's internal reforms - communism was not working as an economic or ideological doctrine - but they will not acquiesce in the dismemberment of the Soviet Union as a state.
The danger, of course, in this reaction is that it could also set the stage for the revival of Russian authoritarian government, including some features of czarist rule.
National independence has always been one of the prime goals of human society. But instantaneous global communications, space ships, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and nuclear explosives have demolished the traditional concepts and props of national sovereignty and security. The new imperative, therefore, as essential for the newer nations as it is for the older ones, is to devise a workable system of collective security through a structure of world interdependence.
The major problems facing the nations of Central Europe today are not different from the ones confronting the world prior to Gorbachev. The first of these problems is represented by the absence of a workable world security system, which is to say, a method of regulating the conduct of nations in the international arena, including control of armaments.
The prime cause of war throughout the ages has been the tendency of nations to pursue their ambitions at the expense of others, accepting no restraint on their behavior beyond their borders. A corollary is the accumulation of superior military force. The inevitable result has been world anarchy. But anarchy today has a nuclear fuse attached to it.
In this sense, the human race today is in a highly primitive and precarious condition. Our dominant energies are turned to destructive purposes. Nothing that man makes in the world today uses up more energy, valuable resources, manpower, and wealth than guns, planes, tanks, rockets, explosives, and other military gadgetry.
The irony is that these weapons not only do not create security but add to the collective insecurity. The situation is reminiscent of enemies on opposite ends of a lifeboat, both of whom are equipped with highly efficient automatic drills and who seek to exert their will by threatening to drill a larger hole in their part of the boat than their foes can drill in theirs. The accumulation of weapons of total destruction can only be regarded as total madness, made all the more dangerous by the ease and rapidity with which an accident or a miscalculation could set off explosions that could rock the continents.
WHAT makes the present situation all the more inexplicable is that the human species is confronted with fast escalating dangers that call for a mobilization of human science, ingenuity, and dedication.
Instead of uniting to meet these dangers, we are locked into our tribal impulses. The national fully sovereign state today stands between us and the kind of organized response required to meet common problems.
A prime example of such a problem is the deterioration of the world's environment. Much has been said about the hole in the ozone layer that could result in the amount of radiation reaching the earth. Another example, of course, of collective human irresponsibility is the greenhouse effect. Some scientists believe that the world's temperature is already showing the effects of the massive gases produced by factories, power plants, incinerators, and combustion engines. The decade of the 1980s has witnessed a rapid buildup of those noxious spews. Most of the attention given to the resulting greenhouse effect has been on temperature increase.
What is not generally realized is that the greenhouse dangers involve an intensification of the extremes - cold as well as heat. Indeed, some scientists assert that extreme cold may be even more of a present danger to human life and vegetation than an increase in heat. They point to the recent sequence of extremely cold winters as evidence that we may be moving toward another ice age.
Even without reference to these cosmic dangers - whether the greenhouse effect or a hole in the ozone layer - our respiratory systems have to contend on an everyday basis with poisons in the air. The water tables are being infected with detergents. The seas have become an open sewer, resulting in widespread damage to plankton, which has an important role in providing oxygen for our planet.
The danger is being compounded by the growing destruction of the rain forests, properly described as the lungs of the earth.
The heart of the matter is that what is plainly everybody's problem is nobody's business. We assume that people in important places in national governments are addressing themselves knowledgeably and competently to the cause of the human future.
But the national sovereign state in its present form is an anachronism, chained to its tribal preoccupations and ambitions, incapable of transcending the national interest in favor of the human interest.
Mikhail Gorbachev's revolution inside the Soviet Union, however, has implications for the form and structure of world organization. Indeed, Gorbachevism has come to mean an upgrading of the human condition.
President Bush, in his public statements after Malta, acknowledged this larger dimension as an agenda item in the discussion of the two leaders. This is all to the good, but the action in Panama - like the Soviet action in Afghanistan - indicated that the superstates are still a long way from pursuing policies that will lead to an effective rule of law as the only national hope for a world made and fit for human habitation.
To repeat: The breakup of monolithic communism has advanced the cause of human freedom by creating a basis for the independence of the nations involved.
But these nations exist in a world in which the main problems are global in nature. Unless a substantial global response is created, with the emphasis on collective security, the nations will be confronted with perils unlike anything the human race has experienced in the past.
The clear challenge is to create a system of structural interdependence that at long last can create the conditions required for true national independence, freedom, and durable world peace.
It will be asked whether the United Nations represents a structure of law above nations capable of dealing with global problems. True, in 1945, an organization of states was created for the express purpose of attending to problems and issues beyond the reach of the individual independent states.
However, when proposals were made at the organizing conference that would give the United Nations the specific and effective means to prevent war and to meet common dangers, the US and the USSR held back, claiming that the matter of a durable structure for peace had to be deferred until the chaos, confusion, and flux produced by World War II were reduced or dissipated.
With each passing year, however, attempts to make the United Nations fully relevant to the arms race, environmental deterioration, or such problems as the Berlin Wall seemed increasingly irrelevant.
The UN has made excellent contributions wherever and whenever it was permitted to operate, but it is still secondary to the foreign policies of the major nations. The dominant notion is that the UN must reflect the world as it is. The trouble with this notion is that the world as it is needs to be changed.
If the freedom movements of the '80s are the high points in recent history, then neglect of the UN has to be regarded as the greatest single international failure since the end of World War II. A specific case in point is Panama. The US has accused Gen. Manuel Noriega of high crimes and made the unilateral decision to us its armed forces to topple his regime.
What was the UN created for if not to deal expressly with this kind of situation that the US dealt with unilaterally? Vietnam, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ethiopia, South Africa are other examples of situations that have called for effective resolution, but in which the UN was largely irrelevant.
The great challenge of the '90s, therefore, is to salvage and improve the UN and to develop it into an agency capable of providing effective justice among nations - an agency, moreover, capable of meeting the wide range of serious problems that are inherent in a world that has become a single geographic unit.
The Charter of the UN provides the means by which such strengthening changes can be accomplished. It is not necessary to reach for the moon in the effort to give the UN an effective world presence.
ALL that is required is for enough nations to insist that it be done. The US, for example, can announce that the restructuring of the UN is the underlying objective of its foreign policy. A positive response from other nations, larger and small, would be a reasonable expectation.
The bugaboo of national sovereignty is certain to be raised. The hope has to be that people everywhere will create the kind of momentum that brought down the Berlin Wall as well as dictatorships in Eastern Europe. If people can get excited about national independence, it is reasonable to hope that they may also become at least as excited about the prospects of a governed world that can safeguard the conditions of life on earth.