We may not have come to the "end of history"--as the current buzz phrase would have it--but we do seem to have come to the end of the world as we know it.
Specifically, conditions seem to be changing in three notable and important respects. With the amazingly rapid collapse of communism as an ideology of divisive and dynamic appeal, the Cold War between East and West has ceased to be a determining factor in international affairs. And with that change, the danger of a major war erupting within the developed world--already low--has sunk to microscopic levels, at least for the foreseeable future. Finally, most of the nations of the world have adopted prosperity as their chief policy goal.
As they prepare for their meeting at sea next weekend, George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev seem aware of these important historical changes. They will be seeking to manage the collapse of communism in order to avoid undesirable side effects, to keep the probability of major war low and to figure out what their role ought to be in the brave new world that is emerging.
Their most immediate problem is Europe, where German unification has suddenly become a real possibility. That is a prospect that ignites old but very vivid fears in the minds of many. If an effective solution to the German problem is to be found, the United States and the Soviet Union ought to be fully incorporated as guarantors against a possible German military revival.
This could probably be accomplished best by combining the two military alliances, rather than by allowing them to continue to disintegrate. All alliances have been devised in part to control allies, and history has shown that it is quite possible to maintain alliances even when there is no common enemy.
Bush and Gorbachev will also spend time talking about arms reductions. In this case, the less talk, the better. Impelled by reduced tensions and budgetary pressures, both sides have embarked on a pattern of wary but determined unilateral arms cuts. Formal arms agreements, in which an exquisitely nuanced arrangement must be worked out for every abandoned nut and bolt, will only slow this process.
Farther afield, the two major world leaders may want to consider pooling their talents, resources and relationships of influence to act in concert in festering trouble areas like the Middle East. One can even imagine joint Soviet-American peacekeeping forces, but if the police become targets of the local violence (as with U.S. forces in Lebanon in 1983), enthusiasm for such ventures will be muted at best. In the meantime, the big countries are likely to be more comfortable striding shoulder to shoulder in the various marches against such universal evils as forest fires, global warming, oil slicks and whale depletion.
Most broadly of all, it may be time for world leaders to muse about the fact that we seem to be at a point in history in which the possibility of establishing an effective world government becomes feasible. Curiously, under present conditions, that oft-heralded goal may now be a bad idea.
If the Cold War continues to decline, if nations increasingly come to accept economic development as a primary goal and if they no longer find it sensible to use force or the threat of force in their dealings with one another, it would be neither necessary nor particularly desirable to create an entrenched international government or police force (as opposed to ad hoc arrangements and devices designed to meet specific problems).
This is because an effective international government would probably be detrimental to economic growth. Like domestic governments, it could be manipulated to reward the inefficient, coddle the incompetent and plague the innovative. Without such well-meaning tinkering, the international market--with all its efficient, productive cruelty--will flourish.
In sum, we seem to be moving into an era in which three propositions are increasingly being accepted and celebrated, particularly in the developed world: War is a bad idea; trade and international interdependence bring economic and intellectual growth, and economic and intellectual growth are good things.
These propositions have not always been widely accepted, nor are they universal today. But they seem clearly to be on the ascendant, and if they become truly consensual, war will become obsolete, interdependence will flourish and international "anarchy" will become desirable. This new world will not be free of problems or disputes but, by the standards of most people, it will be a distinct improvement over the old one.