IN THE past two years, we have seen the end of the Cold War. In the past two weeks, we have witnessed the breakup of the Soviet Union. But the greatest significance of the recent events in Moscow may be the collapse of communism, signaling the end of an era in world history that roughly coincides with the 20th century. A new age has begun.
As Daniel Moynihan suggested recently, our century has been defined by the rise and fall of different types of totalitarianism. Whereas other eras may be known for the Enlightenment or the " Industrial Revolution, historians are likely to demarcate our century by the rise of Nazism, fascism and communism, and the struggle to reverse those movements.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 and the failed Soviet coup of 1991 are likely to be seen as bookends in an age far different from what came before, and what now is sure to follow.
To be sure, it's hard to paint history in this space with more than a broad brush. Many of the events of this century had their roots in developments of past centuries.
But as Paul Johnson wrote in his book "Modern Times," the era now ending had several notable characteristics. First, it was marked by an enormous growth in the power of the nation-state. From this country, where the effects were benign, to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the power, size and role of government grew exponentially.
Because totalitarianism was often the order of the day, political ideologies -- usually in some form of socialism -- replaced religion as the definers of much of the century's discourse and mindset. With that role and power came a corresponding increase in the importance of politics and political leaders.
In the 20th century, life for many was defined in large part by a national government, not a church or community. (Sadly, "defined" often meant circumscribed or ended.)
Whereas the pivotal figures in recent history may have been religious leaders, scientists or generals, ours included a new category -- totalitarian dictators -- the Hitlers, Stalins and Maos.
Second, with totalitarianism in full force, fighting for political freedom became one of the abiding preoccupations of the century. That affected Americans at home as well. From the Cold War, to the real war liberating Europe, to a misguided war in Vietnam, this country's foreign policy for much of the century was about attempting to restore liberty where regimes had suppressed it.
Now, with the events in the Soviet Union, the old order is crumbling, a victim of the power of the market, the communications revolution and the diligence of the West in promoting freedom. While it is impossible to predict what will take its place, one can hazard some broad predictions:
* In an era of global markets and communication, the new age will be defined more by economics than politics. While economics has obviously been a motivating and determining force in the world before, capitalism is now superseding the nation-state as a force for social change. Already in Western Europe, old political boundaries are becoming extinct in the urge to create a better marketplace.
* In contrast to what came before, we may also be entering an era of atomization and particularism, as individuals bind less on the basis of large nation-states and more by distinct nationality or even cultural interest. Already Yugoslavia is crumbling, while the Soviet Union splinters into a succession of Latvias and Moldavias.
* As sources for news and information increase, the values formed from those sources change. That causes, inevitably, a decline in hierarchies and establishments, not only in political life but in everything from broadcasting to the workplace. There will be less structure imposed from above, hence more freedom and less stability.
* As socialism fails as a defining ideology, the role of religion may grow stronger.
From now on, the world will be different. In the euphoric spirit of the last two weeks, one hopes it will also be better. In the new age, perhaps, freedom will truly ring. Accompanied, one might add, by a fair amount of chaos.