LONDON — London. -- When I left school in 1958 the world was a mess. There was a Cold War on, and we lived with the imminent threat of a hot war fought with nuclear weapons.
Everybody in the developed world was spending a fortune on the arms race, and there were seven foreign armies camped on the soil of a divided Germany. All Europe was divided by the "Iron Curtain" -- and down in what we had not yet learned to call the Third World, the two sides were fighting proxy wars in other people's countries.
It was a miserable time, and 30 years later, in late 1988, everything was still the same: the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war, a divided Germany in a divided Europe, and proxy wars raging across the Third World from Nicaragua and Angola to Afghanistan and Cambodia.
Now it has all been swept away.
What is more, it has been swept away peacefully. The Cold War collapsed, the danger of nuclear war receded below the horizon, Germany reunited, Eastern Europe de-communized, the Iron Curtain vanished, and finally the Soviet empire simultaneously democratized and dismantled itself -- and the total butcher's bill for all this change was under a thousand violent deaths.
Historical change does tend to come in sudden great lurches, after long periods of stability. But the normal pattern is for these great bursts of change to be accompanied by massive amounts of violence and to produce many disastrous consequences. (The two previous lurches in this century are known as the First and Second World Wars.)
This time, we have had a comparable magnitude of change without the usual slaughter. Moreover, almost all the change has been for the better. (That is a subjective judgment, I know, but which change would you like reversed? Should we re-divide Germany? Or re-communize Russia?)
When you combine the fact that the changes this time are overwhelmingly beneficial with the extraordinary non-violence of the process, you have serious grounds for suspicion that something is up. That, in fact, the world may be changing in fundamental ways.
The principal theme in all this change, in Europe and at the global level, is the very rapid, non-violent spread of democracy. In the past dozen years, the number of people living in democratic or rapidly democratizing countries has practically doubled, from one-third to two-thirds of the world's population. And this process, too, has been almost entirely non-violent.
At the end of the '70s, democracy in Latin America had dwindled to only a handful of little countries. Now, there are only a couple of dictatorships left. And here it is not primarily Communist regimes but right-wing military governments that have fallen victim to the non-violent demand for democracy.
Chile's Pinochet, Argentina's generals, and Haiti's Duvaliers have been swept out by the same tide that did for the Honeckers and the Husaks of Eastern Europe. (Yes, I know there was a coup in Haiti, but look at the pattern.)
In Africa the phenomenon is much more recent, but today a move from dictatorship or one-party rule to multi-party democracy is under way in at least half the continent's countries. The shift is already an accomplished fact in Benin, Gabon, Namibia and Zambia. The formerly one-party states of Algeria, Angola, Congo, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo are having elections.
Even in South Africa, the race to "re-integrate and democratize" the country has begun (perhaps too late, but better late than never). And though there are doubtless countries where the process of democratization will suffer serious setbacks (Togo is having a rough time at the moment, for example), the overall pattern is quite consistent.
The pattern in Asia has been equally clear: from the Philippines to South Korea to Taiwan. Asia is also the continent where non-violent movements demanding democracy have been drowned in blood, in China and Burma. But these two exceptions mainly serve to underline the new rule: In most countries, most of the time, force is no longer the final arbiter.
The reason democracy has come by non-violent means to countries as different as Bangladesh and Benin, Czechoslovakia and Chile is only partly the confidence and new techniques of protesters who have seen it work elsewhere. The media play a big role in the process, but they affect the rulers even more than the ruled.
Naive people imagine that most things in this world are settled by guns. In fact, most things are settled by what is in people's minds -- and though contemporary tyrants do not accept the values of democracy and human rights, their consciousness has already been infiltrated by them. The result is that non-democratic rulers nowadays usually lack the conviction of their own righteousness that is needed to order large numbers of people killed. So, very often, they are defeated non-violently.
The fact that China's rulers (and Burma's) finally ordered massacres of their pro-democracy protesters in 1989 is a reflection of their almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. When the present Chinese rulers die off, even their own chosen successors -- men in their 60s who have been exposed much more directly to the the world -- will probably prove as unable to use deadly force to maintain their rule as their counterparts were in East Berlin, Prague and Moscow. And if China makes it, we are heading for a world with a 90 percent democratic population in this decade.
This is absolutely new: it is no more than two or three years since the figure exceeded 50 percent for the first time in history. And whatever the implications of a majority-democratic world, this too is evidence that something very big is changing in the world.
We can already see the effects in the behavior of our major international institutions. They never could defend democracy or human rights; after all, their membership included democracies, communist countries, right-wing military dictatorships, one-party "socialist" regimes and even some feudal monarchies. Such a wildly ill-assorted bunch of governments could barely agree on the time of day. So they concentrated on safeguarding the members' borders and "sovereign rights."
But now, with growing majorities of democratic governments among their members, global and regional security organizations are finding that a rough consensus is possible on these issues. And they are starting to act on that consensus.
The most striking instance was the U.N.'s intervention in April and May to stop the Kurds from being massacred by the Iraqi army. That was a huge new precedent in terms of the U.N.'s ability to protect human rights, for it was protecting Iraqi citizens from the Iraqi government on Iraqi territory -- very much against Baghdad's will.
We are seeing a similar impatience with the old idea that sovereignty overrides all human concerns in the U.N.'s tactics for shutting down the many internal wars that have raged unchecked in the Third World for a decade or more. From Nicaragua to Angola to Cambodia, it has been making offers of mediation that the local regimes do not dare refuse -- even though they invariably involve U.N.-supervised elections that the government might lose. Peace (and democracy) have suddenly become more important than sovereignty.
You can see the same sort of transformation in the Organization of American States, which is now imposing a trade embargo against Haiti to restore a democratically elected president to power (and we'll worry about sovereignty later).
You can also see it in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe's recent agreement that any six member countries may demand that alleged human-rights violations in another member-state be investigated by an international commission -- and the suspected violator has no right to refuse.
The spread of democracy is eroding the traditional refusal of international organizations to interfere in a sovereign state without permission. The U.N.'s prolonged foot-dragging over Yugoslavia shows that there is still a long way to go, but that is clearly the way the wind is blowing.
So there we have it: three kinds of evidence for fundamental change. The dramatic events in Eastern Europe have an echo in the less dramatic global spread of democracy by essentially similar means, and the resulting democratic majorities are already beginning to transform our international institutions.
The way the world works is changing from week to week, and the key factor that unites all the different sorts of change is the spread of democracy. Something profound is going on, and a century from now historians will still be writing books to explain it.
I= Gwynne Dyer syndicates a column on international affairs.