THE situation in the Middle East is, of course, quite dangerous. Much blood may be spilled before the crisis is resolved. The cost in terms of worldwide economic dislocation may prove high. But in the large perspective of history, the events now unfolding in the Persian Gulf may represent a major step in the evolution of our civilization. Never before has the whole world community acted with such cohesion and such resolution to punish and reverse aggression.
This is no small matter. With force and violence the ultimate arbiter of relations between societies, civilized peoples have been compelled to adopt the ways of power. A single aggressor has been able to impose on each of his neighbors the unhappy choice: either match my power or I will consume you. Either way, the ways of power are spread and humane cultural possibilities are swept away.
This rule of power is a consequence of the fragmentation of the civilized system since it first emerged 10,000 years ago. The aggressor can spread his ways because his neighbors are incapable of acting in concert. Machiavelli described how the Romans used this fragmented response to their imperial expansion. While the aggressor is making war upon one, the ``other powers that are more distant ... look upon this as a matter too remote for them to be concerned about, and ... continue in this error until the conflagration spreads to their door, when they ... have no means for extinguishing it except their own forces, which ... no longer suffice when the fire has once gained the upper hand.''
This has been the pattern of history. Even if some region of the world created a zone of peace and security, the members were always vulnerable to the appearance off their shores of gunboats from distant lands.
Until our times. In this century, all the peoples of the world have come in contact with each other, creating the emergent possibility of a different kind of world order - not the anarchy where violence rules, but some kind of collective security system that can insure the rule of law. The first result of the global interconnection of peoples, however, was not world order but world wars.
After both world wars, the nations of the world made efforts to move toward a new order. Both the League of Nations and the United Nations disappointed the hopes that inspired their founding, however. After 1945 the entire planet became a chessboard on which two great powers vied for supremacy.
The retreat of the cold war, many have said, has left a vacuum to be filled with old tribal animosities and the ambitions of regional tyrants and bullies. In his adventurist move into Kuwait, Saddam Hussein was evidently banking on this ``vacuum'' model of the post-cold-war world. But the world community, under the skillful leadership of an American president, appears to have recognized that the end of the cold war is not a time to move backward into fragmentation and anarchy. It is, rather, a time to move forward toward a more secure and just world order.
The world's response to the Iraqi aggression is unprecedented in its speed, comprehensiveness, and coordination. The joint declaration of the superpowers, the strong resolutions passed by the UN Security Council, the international cooperation with the embargo against the aggressor, the formation of a multinational force - these are hopeful signs that civilization's future may be something better than an extension of our bloody past.
Our hope that a new day is dawning must, however, remain cautious. The present example falls short of proving that the world community has either the will or the means to substitute justice for the rule of brute force.
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia sit on oil the rich countries of the world need. The world's response to Iraq's grab for power in such a vital region can offer little assurance to many other small nations that the world would act to rescue them if a neighbor should arise with great military might and a lust to devour them.
Iraq, meanwhile, though it commands a formidable force, is still a minor power. There are several powers with sufficient destructive power at their command that the rest of the world, even if every other nation were united against it, would be afraid to stand in its way to save one of their number. Had Saddam waited until he possessed nuclear weapons, the world might have opposed even his aggression with nothing more than words.
The work of creating a new world order, therefore, must overcome the dangerous legacy of carelessness about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And in the long run, it will also require more progress in the process of disarmament of the great powers.
The ancient historian Thucydides put into the mouths of the Athenians, about to slaughter their weaker neighbors who had opposed them, this grim but accurate characterization of the intersocietal system: ``The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.''
The good news from the Persian Gulf is that perhaps humankind has taken up the pen to begin the vital work of rewriting that ancient law.