WHEN the domino theory was turned upside down in 1989 - with Soviet puppet regimes rather than Asian nations collapsing in rapid succession - perceptions of the forces governing our late-20th-century world were fundamentally altered. Rather than a nuclear stalemate lasting well into the next century, the prospect of a "new world order" appeared.
Have the "forces of evil" been beaten, and is the world now heading into a new democratic age, with Western values leading the way to global prosperity?
Three provocative new books suggest this is far from the case.
According to "Preparing for the Twenty-First Century," by Paul Kennedy; "Pandemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics," by Daniel Patrick Moynihan; and "The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age," by John Lukacs, the coming decades hold complex, potentially devastating challenges that have not yet been fully appreciated. The strong preoccupation with anticommunism and various economic myths, these writers argue, has gotten in the way of anticipating the profound transformations t aking place, hampering our ability to respond effectively.
None of these books closely examines the political and economic changes in individual countries. They are historical looks at the forces driving change - forces that have burst onto the world stage with surprising ferocity, such as nationalism, or are at work behind the scenes, such as biotechnology developments or environmental degradation.
A strong theme running through each book is that the modern state is losing authority and its capacity to cope with these escalating forces. The pressures come from above and below - from transnational forces operating beyond the control of individual countries and also from subnational or separatist forces threatening their cohesion.
"Preparing for the Twenty-First Century" is a tour de force on the sweeping impact transnational forces are having on the planet and their likely effects on key countries and all regions over the next 30 years.
Paul Kennedy, a professor of history at Yale University and author of the highly praised "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" (1987), demonstrates that familiar types of change are acquiring an entirely new speed, dimension, and momentum. They are threatening to overwhelm our resources, increase global disparities, and deprive nations of their sovereignty and viability in the global economy.
The population explosion, for example - an estimated global increase of 60 percent in the next 30 years, 95 percent of that in developing countries - portends massive social unrest or mass migrations to the North should technology fail to be harnessed effectively. In the developing world, 38 million to 40 million new jobs per year will be needed to keep pace with the rise in the labor force.
Yet technological advances in agriculture and industry are more likely to undermine the economies of developing countries than to rescue them, Kennedy says, pointing to developments under way that may eliminate countries' principal exports.
And, he suggests, American faith in laissez faire capitalism as the road to global prosperity is a myth, one that may lead the United States to lose its advantage in the world economy. Multinational firms, he argues, are gaining power without being accountable to governments or taking account of their impact on peoples and nations.
In a section on regional impacts, Kennedy considers which peoples are likely to be winners and losers, and why. His analysis is uneven, but still remarkable in its consideration of how cultural as well as politico-economic factors interact with these forces.
Kennedy does not analyze potential solutions, but he points to three steps fundamental to an effective global response: reeducating people to understand why changes are occurring; improving the role of women; and encouraging risk-taking political leadership.
IN "Pandaemonium," an expanded version of lectures given at Oxford University, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York focuses on the troubling issue of ethnicity, or ethnic nationalism, which is tearing some countries apart and preventing others from establishing themselves as viable states.
In a discursive, sometimes imprecise, but virtuoso style, Moynihan explores the roots of ethnicity, not only in race and language but also in a common vulnerability and need for security. The world has been stunned by the horrors of "ethnic cleansing." This book seeks to show why we were caught so unawares by recent events in the Balkans and why it is imperative to rethink ways of responding to various manifestations of ethnicity.
Perhaps because of its own myth of the melting pot, he says, the US has long underestimated the elemental force of ethnic issues at home and abroad, with serious consequences - in Vietnam, the nonaligned world, the Soviet empire, the Balkans, and American cities. This helps explain, Moynihan contends, why political "realists" steeped in anticommunism failed to perceive the "digestive problems" caused by nationalities within the Soviet empire, as well as its economic decline. They insisted on huge US defe nse outlays at a time when the Soviet Union was already decaying within.
Today, the challenge is to make the world "safe for and from ethnicity," he says. How can multi-ethnic societies maintain sufficient cohesion to allow for democracy? Preferential policies may encourage interethnic conflict, Moynihan writes. Yet some guarantee of minority rights seems essential. With more groups clamoring for self-determination, the world community must find ways to protect minority rights while supporting the stability of states.
John Lukacs, a Hungarian-born historian who lives in the United States, focuses on a similar theme in "The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age" - the rise of radical nationalism, which he sees as gaining influence in Eastern Europe, Russia, and even parts of the West, at the expense of democracy.
In a masterly if idiosyncratic survey of the past century, mixing original analyses with personal reminiscences from return trips to Central Europe, Lukacs says that nationalism, not the cold-war conflict, has been the predominant force of our time.
The battle of the century was not between communism and democracy, he says, but a three-way struggle among communism (Stalin's Soviet Union), liberal democracy (the West), and radical nationalism (Hitler's Germany). The first two united to defeat the third in World War II, and communism itself has now collapsed.
But what appeared first as the triumph of democracy is now shadowed by the resurgence of nationalism, indicating that Hitler's legacy persists. (Croatia and Slovakia, Lukacs reminds the reader, were states created by Hitler that are now promoting new forms of nationalism, while Austria, Hitler's birthplace, awarded a neo-Nazi political party 23 percent of the national vote last December.) He is pessimistic about the prospects for democracy in the East and for European unity in the West.
DESPITE an apparent decline in prestige, the US remains a model and a constraining factor. Yet Lukacs is deeply concerned about the dimming forces of civilization, an extreme materialism corrupting democratic values, and a "new barbarism" pervading life in the West. In fact, he asserts, we are coming not only to the end of the 20th century, but also of the modern age. The task at hand, he says, is "how not to accept the descent into the new barbarism."
These books are warnings that the demands of the time are greater than we may think, and they affirm spiritual and moral values as central to finding needed answers. Whether or not one agrees with their conclusions, the insights and penetrating analyses are a valuable help in understanding more deeply the forces of change.