WITH the dismantling of the cold war, the economic and political clout of the superpowers could decline. ``The world that is emerging will have a great deal more need for the energies and skills of nations other than the superpowers,'' says Bernard Wood, chief executive officer of the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, an Ottawa think tank set up in 1976 by Canada's federal government. ``Power and responsibility are going to be more spread around.''
As a Canadian, Mr. Wood may have a bias. Such ``middle powers'' as Canada, he says, could enjoy great opportunities in the period ahead. ``The agenda is full and challenging, but this kind of challenge is what Canadians and many others have been awaiting for 45 years. It will take every bit of Canada's skill and idealism to steer our way through the turbulent waters ahead and help to shape the outcome.
``With the all-embracing East-West confrontation breaking down, moves to reduce reliance on military force, and the patterns of international leadership in flux, this is the equivalent of the great re-orderings of the international system which followed both the First and Second World Wars.''
Wood figures the winding down of the cold war means that the management of East-West relations will move away from military matters toward the economic and political arena. Nations will recognize their greater interdependence. The ``No. 1 demonstration of interdependence'' will be environmental problems.
``No one can escape from some of the global environmental threats,'' he noted in an interview in Ottawa. ``They will become as major a rallying point for international energies as was the cold war at its height.''
Wood expects these environmental problems to force greater integration of the concerns of the southern developing countries into the plans of the northern industrialized nations.
Wood believes the United States is ``incapable and unwilling'' to be the global manager in the way it was during much of the cold war. So Canada, Wood says, faces new possibilities for helping resolve ethnic conflicts, border flareups, and other disputes that are erupting in Eastern Europe as the heavy arm of Soviet military might is lifted from that region. Canada has considerable experience in providing peacekeeping forces and other aspects of international mediation.
Moreover, because Canada has been a basically peaceful and successful integration of two cultures and languages for more than a century, it has become something of a role model in a world of many pluralistic nations with diverse languages, tribes, and cultures, says Wood.
But Canada could lose such a role if French-speaking Quebec should break off from the nine English-speaking provinces. That prospect, however, appears to be fading with an agreement among provincial and federal leaders on how to deal with a constitutional conflict at closed, seven-day conclave that ended last Saturday.
Separation, says Wood, ``would be bizarre - a historic failure that would disqualify us in the eyes of the world for a long, long time. If we can't make it work, we don't have anything to share with the world in that regard.''
H. Edward English, an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, notes that Quebec seems less concerned about international status. So a breakup that would reduce Quebec and a truncated Canada to small-state ranking rather than a middle power might not deter separation. ``But those who say no significant loss will be imposed on Quebec as a consequence of separation are remarkably naive,'' he holds.
Of course, both English and Wood are aware of what seems to be constant squabbling between some segments of Canada's anglophone and francophone communities. But English concludes: ``National or international confederations are rarely if ever ideal, measured by standards of economic efficiency or freedom from conflict. But like democracy itself, they may be better than the alternatives - especially for the new century that really began in 1989 [as the cold war ended] - when interdependence severely limits all forms of nationalism except those that are purely cultural.''