HOWEVER one reads the social and political tides of the past decade, it was a mainly stable time. Now important historical shifts are underway. What is cause for wonder and concern is not only how quickly these changes are upon us, but also how difficult their resolution. How prepared are Americans? German unification, unthinkable a year ago, is a reality. The dawning of democratic day in East and Central Europe was unpredicted. Investors from London, Bonn, and Tokyo fill hotels in Budapest and Cracow. Few assumed the rapid disintegration of the Soviet Union. Now Pizza Hut is trying to make it great in Moscow.
On a sober note, the Soviets announced last week they are removing nuclear weapons from the unstable outside republics. A shaky Soviet Union should put everyone on guard - as should the possibility of regional strife in Europe without the superpowers to mediate. What will replace the cold war order?
The Persian Gulf crisis was also unanticipated. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2. Initial reports had 5,000 US paratroopers deployed. Two days later, the number to be deployed was more than 50,000 troops. In a week, the new figure was 150,000 - at an estimated cost of more than $3 billion a month. The scenario of a Gulf war, with its uncertain chemistry of Arab and Jew, and with Saudi oil fields targeted by Saddam, is hardly pleasant. Third-world nations and newly liberated countries in Eastern Europe are beginning to reel from oil price hikes. Winter is coming.
At home, Washington is bedeviled by budget talks. The president and Congress moved through September without a budget compromise until the Gramm-Rudman buzz saw was upon them. US markets did not respond well to the fiscal message. Banks are thinly capitalized. Experts now disagree mainly over how deep or longlasting a recession may be. The savings-and-loan bailout cost is estimated at $5,000 a year for 10 years for every American family.
The 1980s did not make the kinds of demands the 1990s are already presenting. Americans have always been malleable - able to change and respond to both new physical and mental landscapes. They may have to call again upon this wellspring in the coming years. It is a time for sober appraisal, and for girding. One can almost hear the voice of Lincoln in the beautiful Ken Burns TV documentary on the Civil War: ``The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.... We must disenthrall ourselves.... We cannot escape history.''
What's not to be taken lightly are all the voices claiming the US and its people will not be able to meet new demands. America is said to be in economic and spiritual decline, its character and ethos ailing. A Harper's piece, titled ``The Stirrings of History,'' says that the economic and social woes of America are caused by ``the changed character of the nation ... from the confusion of a people in whose mind image has become not merely component of reality but its substitute. The loss of self-knowledge and self-discipline expresses a devolution in [US] character.''
In ``Lines on the Horizon,'' a European best-seller by Jacques Attali, French President Mitterand aide, describes a similar problem. America has ceased to be a quality manufacturer, its infrastructure and inner-cities are in decay, and it has become a heavy borrower of money. Says Mr. Attali: ``It is improbable that these trends will be reversed because they are rooted in a fundamental cultural ethos which has come to dominate late 20th century America: the cult of the immediate.'' America ``lacks foresight and is turned sadly inward.''
The Economist editorializes similarly. It has ``misgivings about the direction in which some of America's `culture' is heading.'' The worry is ```decadent puritanism' within America: an odd combination of ducking responsibility and telling everyone else what to do.''
Such critiques overdo it. But they can't be ignored. A key political metaphor of the 1980s depicted America as ``a city on a hill'' - borrowing from John Winthrop's original Puritan hope for the land. Yet what's the content of the character of the people living in that ``city'' today? What is their purpose? What moves them?
The 1990s may invite less rhetoric about a shining city and more serious building of one.