AS the cold war drew to a close, Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev said: ''The cold war has ended, or is ending, not because there are victor and vanquished but because there is neither one nor the other. Therefore it is perfectly possible to avoid a period of cold peace.''
When he said this, hope filled the air. But the euphoria has disappeared. Instead, President Boris Yeltsin threatens Europe with ''cold peace,'' and former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze reluctantly concurs, saying: ''The war is over. Beware of the peace.''
What sort of new world order is this? The West may have won the cold war, but it forgot to plan the peace. To be sure, Americans traditionally are not a strategic-minded people. After every major conflict, we tend to lapse into inactivity. Nevertheless, the current incoherence is difficult to explain. It arises in part because few people expected the cold war to end. Still fewer expected to win and most of these sought victory, not peace. The few people who planned a post-cold-war peace (including a few members of the Bush administration) were voices crying in a wilderness of utopians and cynics. This helps explain the initial lack of an exit strategy for the cold war.
It does not, however, explain why most US leaders are failing to develop a coherent post-cold-war vision. The United States tinkers on the fringes of systemic change as the world grows nastier day by day. If the US is to avoid another plunge into cold war, its leaders and citizens need to understand the dynamics of the post-cold-war era, an era of ''cold peace.''
Cold peace is a transitional period. The world has left the cold war behind but has not yet attained a better, more stable peace. The great powers realize they no longer threaten each other's vital interests, but they have not yet become friends. Rival military blocs have eroded and cooperation between former opponents is increased, but cooperation between former allies is strained. Ideologies have unraveled, but that void has forced many societies to seek new forms of legitimacy in divisive versions of religion and ethnicity.
At the same time, nations realize that common concerns (trade, the environment, nuclear proliferation) cannot be addressed unilaterally. As a result, new patterns of cooperation emerge, but increased interdependence also gives rise to new rivalries. To borrow George Kennan's words, during a cold peace ''there [can then] be no relationship of friendship [that is] undiluted by elements of rivalry and conflict, [and] there [can] be no relationship of antagonism not complicated by elements of occasional common purpose.'' Thus, cold peace is a contradictory era leading toward either hope or doom.
If the world is to avoid a return to yesterday's rivalries and their disastrous consequences, responsible leaders and citizens must construct a better peace. Whether cold peace will be short or long, will improve or decay, depends largely upon American vision and expertise. If US leaders fail to manage the post-cold-war peace wisely, the sense of international community will fade. Russia or the People's Republic of China may again emerge as the West's enemy. Even worse, the US may one day find itself on the verge of cold war with Japan or one of the NATO allies, such as France. If these developments come to pass, chaos will not be far away.
This prediction may seem far-fetched (and it is certainly possible to overdramatize the present situation), but we need to admit that Western stability has strangely changed. President Clinton welcomes the Irish Republican Army's representative with open arms, despite Britain's protests. The president refuses to visit London to celebrate the end of World War II. US relations with France are strained by disagreements over Iraqi sanctions and Bosnia. Many French and Dutch fear Germany's growing power. Canadians shoot at Spanish fishermen. Frenchmen expel US spies and lunch with Cuba's Fidel Castro Ruz.
What is going on?
The West's leaders have yielded to the divisive temptations of cold peace. They have sought national advantage at the expense of a community that they no longer deem as necessary as it was during the cold war. If Western cohesion -- the core of global stability -- continues to erode (and it has eroded so much that the West cannot deal effectively with an ongoing European war in Bosnia), there is little hope that stability can be encouraged elsewhere.
If a better peace is to be achieved, it must be designed and built. It will never appear by default. The US should fortify a sense of international community and extend the benefits of this community to the world. To do this, US leaders need to articulate a valid strategic vision and forge a new consensus.
So long as America fails in this strategic task, the West will falter and the probability of global crisis will increase. If, however, the US acts in a just and strategic fashion, the transition to a more stable era can occur and the nations will leave behind the threat of cold peace.