THE Gulf war, Ethiopia's "democratic dismemberment," and the American-brokered exits of third-world dictators - what do these have in common? To my mind, each reveals this decade's most pressing problem: "Nation-states" are disintegrating across the world.As we know only too well, Europe also is not immune. Yet my experience in reporting from Asia and Africa suggests that the trends breaking down territorial authority go well beyond the nationalist fissures snaking across Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. From Somalia to Sri Lanka, from Liberia to India, collapsing civic order and warring ethnic groups are damaging or destroying nation-states from within. We see this readily enough in coverage from Europe, but elsewhere we find little about this phenomenon in our media. After years of writing from the third world, I've become skeptical about Western coverage of the poor, non-Western world. Not only do we miss a lot, but we also use the word too much. In places as far apart as Bangladesh, Burma, or Iraq, journalists have become reckless with "democracy" or the lack of it. The word pops up everywhere, from reports on self-determination for Kurds to accounts about Bangladesh's cyclone. Rajiv Gandhi's murder last April amounted to "a test for India's democracy." The Bush administration justifies its diplomatic intervention in Ethiopia as a chance for "democratic government." Yes, people in the third world do yearn for more control over their lives. But their quest leads too often to authoritarian movements aiming, oxymoronically, for "freedom." As Americans view these events, their love affair with democracy leads to a simple-minded preoccupation with correct electoral forms. Unfortunately, and regardless of political form, dozens of third-world countries lack a political culture in which notions of public service transcend greed. "Pluralism" usually adds up to tribalism, leading not to a clash of ideas but of identities. A clash of arms follows close behind. Narrowly defined by form, "democracy" can obscure as much as it reveals. Politics in much of India wears a democratic face yet, as in Pakistan or Bangladesh, dynastic, patrimonial, and nonparticipatory habits prevail. Sri Lanka's government changes regularly by free and fair elections. Yet its nighttime "politics" resembles Guatemala's. Elsewhere, even the democratic form has become compromised. Corazon Aquino's 1986 displacement of Ferdinand Marcos has done nothing to alter the abusive and patrimonial basis of Philippine politics, even with a democratic facade. The Korean opposition, happy in 1987 to wear a democratic hat, behaves as intolerantly as the government. The Burmese opposition, cruelly quelled in 1988, finds as much solace in revenge as in ideals. And while the phrase "Tiananmen Square Massacre" has passed uncritically into our lexicon, all the countries neighboring China feared what might occur if narrowly based and student-instigated "democratic" turmoil displaced firm direction from Beijing in 1989. Excessive reliance on the magic word also leads us to expect too much. The same wave of democracy flooding Asia is now reported to be washing over Africa. True, elections are occurring in previously one-party states. Yet a new stable of patronage-hungry politicians may prove worse than the scoundrels leaving the scene. In Nepal, electoral forms reluctantly accepted by the monarch have worsened the spoils-sharing of Nepal's few resources.Or take the newest constitution adopted in Colombia, one of the worl d's longest documents of its kind. It positively glows with good will. Dozens of clauses promise democratic protection. But the new charter rests on unpromising foundations - a political culture of guerrillas, drug cartels, and acute disparities of wealth. In this environment, how can civil liberties, participation, and tolerance have much chance of nurture? Ironically, the third-world's unraveling results partly from the integration into the first world of its most powerful and cosmopolitan families. Leading a double life, they send their money and children abroad while treating their countries like medieval fiefs. Statistics showing that movement of capital from the third world to the West far exceeds capital flows to the "developing" world once seemed proof that the first world was exploiting the third. Now these figures (as a surge of writing about third-world "governance" notes) reveal more about local leaders' looting of their captive populations. The lack of national cohesion in many former colonial territories has become more glaring as cold-war politics fades. Without the Great Game with the Soviet Union, the West has little motive to prop up floundering sovereignties or to rescue them from self-inflicted crises. Meanwhile, "compassion fatigue" has become the predominant Western response to successive disasters. The evidence from international charities suggests this fatigue reflects a well-founded belief about the third world - that the lack of civic culture, plus runaway population growth, now contributes to such "natural" catastrophes as floods from deforested mountain ranges, or to migration out of overworked farmlands. All this reevaluation comes as new priorities are emerging. Central Europe's and the Soviet Union's reconstruction will divert resources from third-world aid programs. Meanwhile, the overdue domestic agenda in Western Europe and North America demands new investments to counter Northeast Asia's competitiveness and technological prowess. What we are witnessing therefore, yet cannot quite bring ourselves to believe, is the collapse of a mighty tower of sand, the precarious building blocks of the international system. Some "sovereignties" have slipped already into various shades of indistinct chaos - in places like Somalia, Liberia, Surinam, or Haiti. Other places, like Papua New Guinea, may be headed that way. In the Caribbean or the South Pacific, the bogus nature of most "nation-states" is embarrassingly obvious. Even where external boundaries have meaning, whole regions within many other nation-states have already become "no-go areas," a preserve of warring bands or (to use a Philippine term) "lost command" insurgencies (organized rebellions that have degenerated into banditry). Parts of Zaire, the northeast of India, or the interior of the Andean Latin American countries come readily to mind. Things will get much worse before they get better. We cannot avoid any longer a recognition of the disintegration of any meaningful civic order in many parts of the world still masquerading as sovereign states. Migratory pressures will rise, complicating politics in the West as barriers rise up against newer waves of economic migrants. The principles of asylum are already disintegrating from abuse of the system. What, if anything, might be done? No countervailing credo yet confronts the unraveling logic of self-determination. No universal mechanism exists to weigh the justice of competing ethnic claims. No international authority is yet willing, let alone able, to save failing sovereignties. Should America become the custodian of dissolving nation-states, responsible for nurturing in ever tinier successor territories? Must we become the sole guarantor of existing borders, as in the Gulf war? I cannot imagine our doing this, even selectively, for long. Yet it will be hardest of all, for a country of our habits, to do nothing, even as we begin to realize that involvement in conflicts with no chance of succumbing to "democratic" solutions is a Sisyphean labor. If, however, the prospect of leaving the world alone collides with the American way, then at best we should seek a tightened cohesion of multilateral-aid donors. The West can and should insist on tough but enlightened conditions before throwing new aid into old imbroglios. Multilateral and bilateral aid conditionality should apply to governance, to environmental protection, to demographic control, and to demonstrated cuts in defense spending. This is not some abstract issue. Names such as "Liberia" or "Somalia" have already ceased to convey any sense of an organized polity. Other names, like "Yugoslavia" or even "Soviet Union," totter in the same direction. Soon, perhaps "Ethiopia," or "Sudan," or "Zaire" may face dismemberment. Like other "nation-states" disappearing before out eyes, Ethiopia suffers above all from a terrible mismatch of "national" boundaries and ethnic identities, and from a lack of a critical mass of leaders who even attempt to transcend an ethnicity far narrower than their "nation." Of the two, ethnicity carries more immediate danger than poor governance. In this uncertain age we need not seek the proper ideological glue or economic philosophy to bind the globe together. Nor need we waste too much time defining the new game rules that must apply now that we remain the only superpower. No, the question posed by unfolding events has a deeper thrust: What destiny do literally scores of improbable "nation-states" have? And if their prospects for longevity are poor, is it our job to keep them breathing?