America's Anxiety Attack : The Cold War is Over, the Family is Collapsing, the Economy is Going Global and the Melting Pot is Boiling--When Everything's in Flux, What's a Nation to Do?

Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for The Times. His last story for the magazine was on the New York mayoral race

President Clinton feels it every day as he sifts through the intelligence cables and economic reports that struggle to make sense of insistent change at home and abroad--and typically leave him with as many questions as answers.

"I think I feel in my job the way a lot of average people do in their lives," he says, leaning against a high-backed chair in the Oval Office. "They feel on the one hand these changes are exciting and may augur the beginning of the most interesting time in human history. On the other hand, they can be very threatening, both in general terms and personal terms."

Warren Bennis, an adviser to some of the nation's largest companies, feels it in the anxiety of executives who gather expectantly at management conferences, like pilgrims at a shrine, to tug at his sleeve. "Why are they all there?" asks Bennis, a USC management professor and a prolific author. "They think someone knows what the hell is going on. They are spending $3,000 and looking for the new world order, and there is no new world order." Frank Luntz, a pollster for Republican political candidates, feels it whenever he gathers average Americans into focus groups to talk about their lives. "They're scared," he says. "They don't like it because they can't predict the future. People feel they don't have control over their own lives--that they can no longer shape their future."

In America, this is an age of uncertainty. In its economy, foreign policy and social structure, the United States is between worlds--in a limbo where old rules no longer apply and new ones have not yet been written. The future is arriving before we are ready to bury the past, and the result is hesitancy, indecisiveness and inconsistency, as policy-makers, institutions and individual Americans struggle to understand the new realities. "We are groping in the dark for the new structures," says Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, "and the old keeps falling apart." It is as if we have closed one door but not yet opened another.

Four trends, each of which has been gathering force for years, are converging to unsettle these times. One is the restructuring of the economy under the combined pressure of advancing technology and integrating global markets--a vise that is forcing companies to re-examine their most basic operations and has undermined the upward mobility that Americans have long considered a birthright. Next is the global migration of workers from poorer to richer countries, which, in the United States, is bringing more than a million immigrants, legal and illegal, across the border every year, complicating already difficult questions about the racial and ethnic distribution of power. The third is the erosion of the traditional family, a trend that has seen the share of single-parent families more than triple in the past 30 years. And finally, the end of the Cold War has obliterated the foundations of our foreign policy and thrown open elemental questions of how America relates to the rest of the world.

Individually, any of these factors would be wrenching. Together they are inducing the widespread sense of vertigo that marks this, the Entropy Decade. "People feel like there is nothing they can depend on, there is nothing certain," says Stanley B. Greenberg, Clinton's pollster.

These trends intertwine and reinforce each other. The Cold War's end has meant a shrinking of the defense industries, intensifying the pressure on the economy. Workers facing declining living standards have resisted immigration. The technological advances that have diminished the demand for low-skill labor have combined with the enormous rise in the number of children born to unwed mothers to drastically worsen conditions in poor urban neighborhoods.

To a substantial extent, these trends set the political agenda--pushing us to seek new rules for U.S. foreign policy, new policies to revive the growth in living standards and new welfare reforms to deter out-of-wedlock births. They shape the political climate, feeding partisan turbulence and the edgy alienation audible in the angry cacophony of talk radio. They determine the most influential voices of our time: An age of uncertainty lavishly rewards those who can convincingly draw a map of the future, people like Robert Reich or Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and would-be tollkeeper for the information superhighway.

Even President Clinton increasingly seems to perceive his task as representing the future to the present--easing insecurity not only through concrete policy steps but by persuading Americans that he has a vision for the future and a course to arrive there. And yet, he, too, sometimes feels almost overwhelmed by the rapidity of change--and frustrated at government's limited capacity to recognize and respond to it.

The challenge facing politicians and the country isn't unique to this nation or this time. Across the industrialized world, the absence of clear direction is seeding enormous frustration with political leaders. Over the past year, political shifts have come more suddenly and powerfully than anyone could have imagined in Italy, Japan and Canada (where the ruling Progressive Conservative Party was obliterated in a single election, falling from 153 seats in the House of Commons to just two.) In Russia, the power of anxiety to destabilize the political order is being perhaps most vividly displayed.

Change is constant in American life. But now, as at other points in our history, it has become a more pressing, tangible, accelerated social phenomenon. There is a widespread understanding that existing institutions and arrangements are inadequate. At similar moments in the past--the 1820s, the 1890s, after World War I and World War II--the nation has struggled with the same underlying question: Do we adapt to the changes or resist them? The answer has never come without turbulence, and these times are no exception.

FOR THE FIRST QUARTER CENTURY AFTER WORLD WAR II, Americans enjoyed a period of almost uninterrupted economic stability. Industries jump-started by the war--chemicals and electronics, appliances and airlines--created millions of new jobs. American manufacturers, reading the commandments of mass production laid down by General Motors' Alfred Sloan, became the assembly line for the world. So many Americans filed into the office towers of giant corporations that sociologists wrote of "The Organization Man." Above all, living standards for the mass of the American public rose dependably year after year: From 1947 to 1973, the median family income doubled.

In retrospect, it is clear that 1973 marked the pivot from the era of secure prosperity to a new era of economic anxiety. Over the past 20 years, the median family income has been virtually stagnant. At the current rate of growth, it will not double again for centuries, the President's Council of Economic Advisers recently calculated. One recent study found that among workers in their prime earning years--between 22and 58--one-third experienced income declines in the 1980s, compared to about one-fifth in the 1970s. Hardest hit have been young workers and those without college degrees--a pattern that has seen the gaps in the distribution of income steadily widen.

Over the past 20 years, economic anxiety has spread in ever-widening circles. In the 1980s, the image that conveyed economic insecurity was a middle-aged auto- or steelworker in the Midwest whose factory had failed in the face of foreign competition.

But now more white-collar Americans are caught in the same squeeze. Even software designers are competing with skilled workers in Eastern Europe or India who will write programs for a fraction of American wages. White-collar workers now find themselves imperiled as computer and communications advances render obsolete the layers of bureaucracy fattened during the years of prosperity.

At the beginning of the 1980s, two-thirds of Americans who permanently lost their jobs were blue-collar workers and just one-third white collar; by 1990, 47% were white-collar workers. "People are trying to find their moorings," says John Challenger, executive vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based firm that works with restructuring companies. "If you can't anchor yourself in a large company for a long time, where do you find your anchor?"

This erosion of security is a prime force behind the political discontent evident in Ross Perot's strong 1992 showing. But even more striking is the spread of insecurity to those issuing the pink slips. After watching giants like IBM stumble, even many of those at the pinnacles of American business are doubting the lessons they absorbed on their long climb.

In public, senior managers now boldly talk, like so many corporate Che Guevaras, about fomenting revolution and inspiring radical change. In private, they often acknowledge that they have more questions than answers. Does the traditional hierarchical structure of American business still make sense when desktop and laptop computers decentralize the bureaucrats' control of information? How can companies compete when even bitter rivals must cooperate to stay on the cutting edge of all the technologies they must master?

It's no surprise that the market for business advice is ballooning. "So desperate has the beleaguered corporate world become for functional leadership that training in the subject has exploded into an industry," reports Fortune magazine. Screaming from the covers of business magazines and best-selling books are the new buzzwords: re-engineering the corporation, the horizontal corporation, the virtual corporation, liberation management, total quality management--all intended to give insecure managers a new compass for navigating disorder. "There is more idea turbulence in business today than at any point in the past 70 years," says William Taylor, a founding editor of the new business magazine Fast Company.

All this carries with it elements of creative destruction. The retooling and restructuring forced on American manufacturers by foreign competition have revived the growth in productivity; over time, that should help wages begin rising again. New industries--software, biotechnology, fiber optics--replace the old jobs. Even the efficiencies painfully wrung out through corporate downsizing should ripple through the economy "releasing resources that can be used to produce other things," says Richard McKenzie, a UC Irvine professor of management in economics.

It is far from certain that these transformations will revive the growth of living standards, but in a world where technology enables China or Mexico to develop low-wage, high-quality manufacturing, there's less chance of succeeding by trying to recapture the days of Alfred Sloan. Moving forward may be the only choice we have, but the ride is not going to be smooth.

"I used to think the '80s was a white-knuckle decade for business," says Bennis of USC. "The '90s is going to be make the '80s look like a slow dance."

INTENSIFYING THE ANXIETY LEFT BY ECONOMIC change is the turmoil of demographic change. Between a massive wave of immigration and a steady rise in the number of children living in single-parent families, our social fabric is being reconfigured as rapidly as at any point in this century.

In net terms--when emigration from the country is subtracted--the number of new arrivals in the 1980s was greater than in any decade in our history. At current trends, by decade's end the share of the population that was born abroad will climb above 10% for the first time since 1930; by the middle of the next century, according to one recent projection, the foreign-born share of the population will reach the heights of the late 19th Century: almost 15%.

The influx has shattered a period of extraordinary demographic calm. Though America thinks of itself as a nation of immigrants, for four decades in the heart of this century, it accepted relatively few. After the great wave of European immigration that washed into America through Ellis Island, Congress virtually sealed off immigration, and from 1930 to 1970 the foreign-born share of the population dropped. As the sons and daughters of the European immigrants moved from the Lower East Side to the suburbs and learned English without an accent, the issue of how to assimilate newcomers virtually disappeared.

Congress revised the immigration laws in 1965, opening the gates for a second wave of migrants, predominantly from Latin America and Asia. In this new surge, uneasiness about racial change is compounding the inevitable tension of absorbing new ethnic groups. Given the current trends, Jeffrey Passel of the Urban Institute and a colleague recently calculated that by 2030, whites will constitute about 60% of the population (down from 75% today), with Latinos rising to more than 16%, Asians to more than 8% (compared with 9% and 3% now) and blacks holding steady at about 12%. In California and several of the other large states where immigrants concentrate, nonwhites will constitute an even larger share of the population.

This transformation is generating concerns about jobs, education, opportunity and culture, leaving everyone feeling unsteady, aggrieved. Blacks, Latinos and other minorities are frustrated that they remain on the fringes of power. Women and gays are pushing for their share of influence. Among white males, there is a deepening perception that their dominance is passing, if not past. Thus, close behind the publication of a book that heralds the rage of middle-class blacks, comes this cover of Business Week: "White, Male & Worried."

Much of this concern about immigration and racial change is rooted in the fear of contracting economic opportunity. But here is a broader fear: that the nation won't be able to integrate this generation of immigrants as it did their predecessors.

The "politics of difference" infusing modern American life makes assimilation a trickier even the playing field for black Americans, have triggered a panorama of racial and ethnic competitions in business, education and politics. What was once was a tug of war now looks more like rugby. In many ways, public policy now encourages Americans to emphasize their differences, not their common bonds.

Yet evidence is quietly accumulating that the integrative pull of American life remains as powerful as ever. Barry Edmonston of the National Academy of Sciences has calculated that about one in five Asian and Latino immigrants to the United States marry outside their racial group; for the first generation of children born in the United States, the figure rises to 1 in 4 Asians and 1 in 3 Latinos; by the second generation, half of all Latinos and Asians in the United States marry outside their group. Studies show that the children of immigrants remain overwhelmingly committed to mastering English, the passport to American success.

All of this evidence, and the experience of history, testifies to the continued power of integration to renew and replenish national life. But the political impulses toward separatism are strong, and even stronger is the inherently polarizing force of massive new immigration, which endlessly adds new sources of tension even as the older arrivals move further into the economic mainstream. In the push-pull of immigration, "the forces pushing toward integration are very strong," says Passel, the Urban Institute scholar. But "they show up mainly in the second generation. The competing force is more immigration, which keeps adding more people to this mix."

EVEN AS THE COUNTRY STRUGGLES WITH THIS CHALLENGE FROM THE outside in, it faces an equally unsettling test from the inside out: the revolution in family structure.

From 1960 through 1991, the percentage of children living with one parent, almost always a mother, rose from 9.1% to 28.6%. In recent years, the divorce rate has slightly declined, but the growth in out-of-wedlock births continues to rise: from 5.3% in 1960 to 29.5% in 1991. For African Americans, such births now constitute two-thirds of the total. By the end of the century, sociologists have estimated, four of every 10 American children are likely to be born to a mother who is not married.

Many single parents provide loving, secure homes, but research shows that children growing up with only one parent are far more likely to be poor and to have emotional problems, drop out of school and encounter trouble with the law. "What is on people's minds as social problems today: 14-year-old girls with babies and 14-year-old boys with guns," says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan think tank in New York. "What's the most important predictor of out-of-wedlock birth among young girls? Father absence. What's the most important predictor of criminal activity among young males? Father absence. It's not the only predictor, but it is the most important."

Sociologists can come to blows over whether the negative effects of family breakdown are rooted primarily in the moral or economic void left by a father's absence. Likewise, some analysts believe that one reason for the rise in illegitimate births is the decline in wages for men with little education, which makes them both less attractive as husbands and less likely to form a stable family.

Both of these debates illuminate the complex interactions of the trends driving American life in the 1990s. Economic polarization and family breakdown reinforce each other: Children who grow up in poverty, without fathers, are more likely to become unmarried parents themselves, transmitting poverty and fatherlessness across generations in a cycle of despair and dysfunction. To some scholars, that pattern suggests we are creating a new Berlin Wall that keeps children born out of wedlock (and, to a lesser extent, those dislocated by divorce) from the opportunities afforded those reared in traditional families.

At the core of uneasiness over immigration and the family breakdown is the fear that society is Balkanizing into antagonistic ethnic and economic enclaves. That fate is not inevitable. In fact, many see in America's diversity the chance to weave together a global nation--well-suited to speak and sell to the rest of the world because it embodies it in miniature. But to get there we will have to find new ways of expanding opportunity and instilling belief in a set of commonly accepted social values.

The old America, where a white majority held all meaningful power, is gone, but the shape of the new America has not yet hardened. If we can find new ways to expand the boundaries of inclusion while maintaining common standards and responsibilities, we may build the world's first truly multiracial democracy. If not, we may construct our own Beirut.

SINCE WORLD WAR II, IN THE MIDST OF UPHEAVALS IN DOMESTIC LIFE and politics, America has had one area of certainty: its role in the world. But with the fall of the Soviet Union that pillar, too, has crumbled.

From 1947 through the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were, of course, vast disagreements over individual decisions, with the Vietnam War rending the country. But the questions of whether and why the United States should be engaged abroad were essentially settled by a single phrase: containing the spread of Soviet power. Containment did not answer all questions about America's interaction with the world, but as crises arose, "there was a policy superstructure into which many problems could be placed into the right box," says one senior State Department official.

The Cold War's end has left the United States in the enviable but confusing position of defining its world interest at a time when there is no single immediate threat to our national security. Without a Soviet threat, neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton has produced a foreign policy that replaces containment as a rationale for American interaction with the world. Bush floated the idea of the "New World Order" but was unable to fill the balloon with enough content to keep it aloft. Last fall, Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser, offered "enlargement" as the centerpiece of a foreign policy built around the expansion of democracy and free markets. But while those goals clearly remain important to Clinton, Lake's attempt to construct around them a doctrine "came and went without leaving any mark," says another Administration foreign policy planner. "Enlargement had the property of an abstraction."

Many inside the Administration consider the whole quest for a unifying principle of foreign policy a delusion--a search for the Holy Grail. It is virtually a mantra in the Administration's upper reaches that the dilemmas of the 1990s can't be reduced to a single idea. "It is going to be a less ordered world because you don't have the discipline of the Cold War, frankly," says the senior State Department official. "And you are going to have tensions between priorities because none are dominant. You're not going to find a phrase or a word where people are going to say, 'that explains the world to me, every day.' "

This has undeniably left an intellectual vacuum in the foreign policy community. On questions of whether to use force abroad, for instance, the political polarities appear to be reversing: Liberals have castigated Clinton for not moving quickly enough to intervene in Bosnia, while conservatives who bitterly resisted congressional restraints on the President during the Cold War have sought to prevent Clinton from committing troops abroad without legislative approval.

In some ways, the Cold War's end has brought a clear shift in priorities and approaches. Economic interests now dominate American foreign policy. In his first year, Clinton's largest foreign-policy successes were economic: the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the long-running talks to rewrite the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

The shift was almost palpable to U.S. trade negotiators before their talks with Japan broke down in February. "Right from the very beginning there was a very explicit set of ground rules that the economic dimension of the Japanese relationship would have to be put at least on a par with the other 'security relationship,' " recalls Jeffrey E. Garten, the undersecretary of commerce for international trade. "As it got toward the end, that translated so directly and so simply into the proposition that, unlike during the Cold War, we weren't going to paper something over in the economic area in order to smooth over political relations or not undercut the security relationship."

But that certainty is a lonely example: In most other respects, the Cold War's end has left us confused about international engagement. What rules govern intervention in conflicts that pose no immediate threat to our national self-interest? For more than a year, Clinton has struggled to answer that question in Bosnia, pushing forward, climbing back and beginning the cycle again. Bosnia may be the mold for the dilemmas ahead: a conflict in which the spur to action is more an affront to the nation's moral sense--provoked by media images of brutality--than a challenge to our material and political interests. Thus one basic trend--the advance of information technology--accelerates a second, the reconfiguring of America's relations with the world.

"Here's what we face," says one senior Administration defense policy strategist. "Mr. and Mrs. CNN sitting at home, they see some god-awful thing on television. They say stop the killing. They say, who can do that? The U.S. military. We struggle with it. We go in peace to do something not quite military; there is no single bad guy there. The party that is most disadvantaged from our being there has an incentive to kill Americans. That puts us in a pattern of dilemmas: add more people or get out. This is the new pattern for our generation."

Likewise the new era has confused our alliances. NATO's purpose once was straightforward: to deter the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe. Now, it does not know where to point its guns. The former Soviet bloc nations want into NATO because they fear resurgent Russian imperialism; but in theory, at least, Russia is still eligible for membership. Thus the core issue facing NATO: Is the alliance's purpose now to defend against Russia or to enfold it into the West?

In forging its Partnership for Peace plan, which allows the Eastern European nations, including Russia, to be associated with NATO without establishing any timetable for formal entry, the Administration concluded, in essence, that this question could not be answered today. As Frank G. Wisner, the undersecretary of defense for policy, candidly remarked in recent congressional testimony, the Partnership for Peace amounts to "hedging our bets."

The new conditions ruthlessly expose contradictions in old arrangements. Bolstering the stability of Russia and its former satellites is one of Clinton's top priorities. But U.S. trade laws prevent the government from taking the step that might most stabilize those regimes: opening U.S. markets to their exports of aluminum, uranium and other raw materials and products. That's because our laws, designed to prevent countries from dumping products into the United States below their world price, compel us to impose tariffs against imports from nations that lack a market mechanism to price their goods--like the former communist economies.

"We know that without more access to Western markets," says Garten, "the former Soviet Union doesn't have a prayer economically. They have to be able to sell to us and enter our markets." But there are domestic producers to consider, legislators who would resist rewriting the laws: "It's not that we don't recognize the problem," he says. "It is another thing to be able to act on it."

It is also one thing to understand that the Cold War's end demands new approaches--and quite another to push new ideas past interests fattened on existing modes of thought. Last year, for instance, the Pentagon undertook what was billed as a "bottom-up" review of U.S. military needs in a world without a rival superpower. Most analysts considered it a serious effort--and yet when it was completed, many were struck by how little it deviated from the Bush Administration's assessment of future military needs.

Even in international economic policy, where the Administration has been far more sure-footed, its focus is decidedly incremental. At Congress' request, it has begun to consider expanding NAFTA into other countries, but it has not looked further down the road at free trade arrangements across the Pacific or at integrating the former communist states into the world economy. "Do we have a blueprint? No, no one does," says U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor. "It's not because we shouldn't. The question is resources and focus. The people you want most involved in the framing of the questions and the answers are so involved in the day-to-day they don't even have time to really do it."

Kantor insists that the pace of change is so rapid that crafting a long-term blueprint would be an academic exercise. Making decisions incrementally is the natural instinct in an Administration heavy on deal-making lawyers (like Kantor and Secretary of State Warren Christopher) and light on conceptualizing strategists. And that approach may be prudent. But does an era of uncertainty demand prudence, or a vision bold enough to direct events?

ON A WINDY, WET MORNING IN MARCH, PRESIDENT CLINTON SITS BACK IN a chair set before the unlit fireplace in the Oval Office and considers that question. He has just come from a ceremony with Vice President Al Gore marking the continued effort to "reinvent government"--a process akin to pushing a string up a hill.

Clinton is wearing a stylish double-breasted blue suit with oversized shoulders, a starched white shirt and a bright polka-dot tie, but the clothes look crisper than he does: He seems tired and a bit subdued. The Whitewater controversy lingers at the door like a fog: This morning he had been peppered with questions about meetings between White House aides and Treasury Department officials regarding the investigation.

Sitting on the couch across from Clinton, I am acutely aware of the pressure of the clock: so many minutes to cover this ground before he must move on to something else. Yet the clock must tick even more loudly in his ears. That raises an initial question: When crises of some sort erupt almost daily, when the President's time is rationed out in minutes, how much can government set long-range plans for coping with massive shifts like those now facing the country?

"I don't think government is very well organized for those long-term solutions," Clinton says. "Because I think the agencies that would tend to deal with that are either overwhelmingly mired in the problems of the present--you know, how are we going to get this budget passed, or deal with this program, or what's happening in this particular state. Or they're afflicted, literally afflicted, with the procedures of the past."

He leans back. "You know, a lot of times I don't think (that in the White House) I get as broad a range of views as I would if I could just read 10 good magazines a week. So I try to read 10 good magazines a week." And, he says, in his second year, he will try to spend more time with "people who think about these big problems"--like the historians, political scientists and sociologists he met at a dinner last November.

In some ways the problem of perspective is an artifact of the Cold War. David Gergen, Clinton's counselor, contends that the government is far better organized to provide the President with details about obscure potential threats in other nations than immediate challenges at home. But the larger problem, particularly for the President, is finding the time and exerting the discipline to set a long-range course.

I ask Clinton if he ever feels as though he can't entirely get his hands around the country's evolving form. "Sure," he says quickly. Each change, he says, seems to carry equal measure of promise and threat. Globalization of the economy, for instance, may quicken growth, but also increase the number of low-skill people in each country who are "left behind"--without jobs. The end of the Cold War has reduced the threat of nuclear war but unleashed "a lot of chaos."

Against this backdrop, Clinton increasingly seems to define his job as helping people make sense of the times. "I do believe that a major part of the President's job in a time of profound change is getting people to first of all think about themselves as a community . . . and then to imagine the future in a good way, meaning both realistic and hopeful," he says.

"And that goes way beyond any particular program I might pass. If I can get people to think about themselves as a people with a common purpose and then to imagine the future in a good way, I think that's half the battle."

And yet only half. To lead, a President must do more than exhort: As Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state, once observed, a President "is called upon to influence and move . . . his own country and the world around it to a purpose that he envisions."

Against that standard, how has Clinton done?

He has devoted the most thought and produced the most detailed response to the economy. He wants new efforts to increase the education and skills of American workers, encourage the development of new industries at home through investments in research and development and open markets for American products abroad. Critics can question whether this approach will be sufficient to turn around the wage stagnation of the past 20 years. (Indeed, Clinton is concerned that programs to increase skills may only produce a glut of trained workers and depress the value of a college education. "That's an open question," he says.) But there's no question that he has a guiding vision.

After the economy, Clinton seems to have the clearest direction on combatting the rise in out-of-wedlock births. He is still devising welfare initiatives and other policies that might attack the trend, but he has already focused more public attention on it than any President in memory. In effect, he has concluded the debate over whether this trend should be resisted, and begun the dialogue over how.

In immigration, Clinton has had less a policy vision than a political strategy: protecting legal immigration by proposing measures to crack down on illegal immigration. But he has focused only glancingly on the larger question of binding together the nation; as we spoke, he expressed more anxiety than ever before about that dilemma.

"One of the great challenges of this age--you see it in Bosnia; you see it in the Middle East; you see it on that bridge shooting in New York; you see it all over this country--we have to find a way to continue to value our ethnic, racial and religious differences, our cultural identifiers, without feeling that the only way to value them is to denigrate someone else," he says.

"And we have to do it through times of change, when people are being uprooted from their neighborhoods, when their jobs are not secure," he continues. "We have to find a way to put that in as an anchor of American life, because if we do then I'm convinced that this country will be the most successful country well into the next century because of our diversity. If the world is becoming smaller and more globalized, a nation that is a microcosm of the world and can relate best to all the rest of it is going to do very, very well."

Can we achieve that unity while continuing to absorb new immigrants at historically high levels? Clinton pauses for a moment: "To be candid, I just don't know," he says. "Immigration has always been an enormous source of strength in our country. But now we're called upon to really examine whether there have to be more rigorous limits so that there will be enough economic security for the people who are here to do well."

In foreign policy, it is uncertainty that has paralyzed Clinton. On domestic issues, he steers as though he knows the bends in the road ahead; on foreign policy, he's more like a man hugging the white line on a foggy night. Clinton understands that many question whether he is pursuing changes in our relations with the world equal to the changes in circumstance. His response, in part, is to plead for patience. On some questions--like NATO'S future and the West's relationship to the former communist countries--moving slowly may be the best option until the new patterns sort themselves out, he says. "We don't want to just sort of expand NATO on the assumption that we have certain enemies out there that have a different name. This is like the period at the end of the Second World War, where we still had the institutions and values and ties of the war and we don't want to get rid of them," he says. "We know we need to build on them. We know we need something different. And we're in the process of figuring out what that is and reaching to them."

But at a time of unpredictability, I ask, should a President move cautiously or plant a flag and try to pull events toward that pole?

"I think we have to go cautiously in areas where we have only a marginal ability to affect the outcome," he says. "Where we have a significant ability to affect the outcome, which is principally here at home but also in areas like NAFTA or GATT, we have to be more ambitious and leadership-oriented. It's very important to have a vision of what the world is going to look like and what life could be like for Americans and to try to keep working toward it.

"And of course it's difficult because there's never a time that's free of problems. There is never a time which is free of politics. But I think my job still is to try to plant that vision out there and keep pushing toward it and to get people to try to imagine how the future might be and to create it."

EACH AGE OF UNCERTAINTY has posed the same test of leadership: understanding which changes to resist and which carry the irresistible force of history.

On one side of the current debates are Clinton and others who would generally embrace the changes under way (except the breakdown in the family). On the other are Perot, conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan and other proponents of what might be termed "defensive nationalism," who resist these trends, taking positions tinctured with isolationism, protectionism and nativism.

The key dividing line is not party affiliation, but attitudes toward the changes. Issues like NAFTA, immigration and intervention abroad now cause as many divisions within the parties as between them.

Destabilized by these internal disputes, the two parties that have ruled American politics without serious challenge since 1860 could see their dominance shattered. Those predicting the emergence of new rivals to the major parties have always been disappointed. But the economic insecurity spreading in the middle class could well propel a populist, inward-looking anti-Washington party of the left or right.

Perot, who together with Buchanan and Jerry Brown exploited this appeal in 1992, may be too discredited by personal peccadilloes to effectively carry this message again in 1996. But if Clinton is perceived as having failed, another outsider may find a surprisingly large audience for arguments that both parties have flubbed their chance to renew American life. "We are headed potentially for a major political meltdown in this country," says Tim Hibbitts, a Portland-based pollster not noted for flamboyant predictions. "You saw what could happen in Canada. What I would do is wag a finger at the Democrats and Republicans and say, 'Beware, beware, that could happen to you."'

History offers no assurance that the forces seeking to advance and manage change always carry the day. During previous periods in American history, those seeking to hold back the clock have achieved political dominance as well.

In the 1820s and 1830s, the shift from a barter to a market economy--with banks and corporations and cash transactions all growing more common--precipitated a widespread period of flux and defined the political competition between Henry Clay's Whigs, who welcomed the economic revolution, and Andrew Jackson's Democrats, who resisted it. The Jacksonians dominated the political competition into the 1840s, though the forces of change were so strong that eventually the party was forced to moderate its opposition.

In the last years of the 19th Century, a similar divide occurred when Americans struggled with many of the changes visible today: a dramatic economic shift as the nation industrialized and consolidated power into large corporations; a surge of immigration unmatched until now; and a reassessment of the nation's international role symbolized by the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of colonies abroad.

The populist movement was then the most powerful expression of those who sought to resist change. Opposed to the spread of giant corporations and wage labor, suspicious of cities, immigrants and blacks, critical of the imperial designs of William McKinley, the populists combined reform with nostalgia.

But they could not hold back change--or command majority support. Three times, the Democratic Party nominated the populist champion William Jennings Bryan for President; each time he failed. And through the 1890s, the populist struggle to resist the forces reshaping the country was supplanted by the Progressive impulse to manage them.

But the tide turned again after World War I, when the nation confronted a new wave of immigration and suffered widespread disillusionment over the cost and results of America's involvement in Europe. Americans said no to the League of Nations, immigration and domestic dissidents while raising tariffs, imposing Prohibition and banning the teaching of evolution. It was a national shudder, an effort to unwind intensifying complexity.

In many respects, the years after World War II constituted the most successful effort in the nation's history to impose order on uncertainty, particularly abroad. The sense of making a new world was so powerful that Dean Acheson would later entitle his memoirs "Present at the Creation." But this genesis did not occur in seven days, or 70, or 700.

Some elements of the postwar system fell into place quickly. But the hesitancy that many now see in Clinton's dealings with the world also characterized Truman's early years. In January, 1946, columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop published an article that might have been written today: It was entitled "We have no Russian Policy." Yet only a few weeks later, order began to emerge when George Kennan, then the charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, wrote his celebrated "long telegram," predicting a long period of struggle with a Soviet Union committed to probing for weakness in the West.

Kennan crystallized a goal--resisting Soviet expansion--but left unresolved tactics, strategy, costs and capacity. The Truman Doctrine of fighting communism, which accompanied aid to Greece and Turkey, followed in March, 1947; the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe came that summer; NATO in 1949.

The lesson: In times of uncertainty, new patterns take years to cohere.

There's a second lesson in the post-World War II experience. If the Truman Administration planners had not been so ambitious in their vision, the past half-century almost certainly would have been far more turbulent and tense. It is worth remembering that only by forthrightly defining the world they wanted could they steer events, however imperfectly, in that direction.

It does not invalidate the success of that vision to recall its costs. As historian Melvyn P. Leffler notes, the United States constructed logic chains in which threats anywhere in the world cascaded into challenges to national interests--a habit that proved tragic in Vietnam--and "squandered enormous sums of money on an arms race" that "may have eroded America's margin of economic superiority."

What that accounting suggests is that order does not constitute the only virtue in diplomacy. A final lesson of the Cold War thus bounds the other two: If we must become rigid to avoid uncertainty, the cost is too great.

While exploring these issues with Clinton, I read him a remark from Dean Acheson's memoirs. Looking back, Acheson's generation appears supremely confident, but he recalled the years around World War II this way: "Not only was the future clouded, a common enough situation, but the present was equally clouded. . . . The significance of events was shrouded in ambiguity. We groped after interpretations of them, sometimes reversed lines of action based on earlier views, and hesitated long before grasping what now seems obvious."

I ask Clinton if he ever feels that way now.

"Absolutely," he says, stiffening up in his chair. "You may take another time, the period going into the Civil War, where Lincoln said, 'I am controlled by events. My policy is to have no policy.' I think this is a time when we have to be highly flexible. We have to be willing to admit when we make a mistake and change course."

It sounded as though, like Acheson, he was resigning himself to living with uncertainty.

"Absolutely," he says again, more emphatically. "The difference was, though, they were not passive in the face of it. They were willing to admit that they had to be cautious, that they had to be humble, that they had to back and fill, they had to change. But they had their sleeves rolled up and they were active.

"That's what I want people in this country to feel about our Administration. Not that we have all the answers, not that we can solely foresee the future, not even that we won't make mistakes, but at least we are working toward that future. We are active in the face of uncertainty. Because I think that is your only chance, really, to shape it in a way that's good."

THOUGH THESE ARE nerve-rattling times, we may look back on them as the spur to a stronger nation, and see efforts to cling to the past as similarly short-sighted miscalculation. For all the dislocations introduced by global competition, it has forced American business to become more productive and competitive and quickened the development of new technologies and industries. Immigration is infusing cities around the country with new cultural and entrepreneurial energy. For all the confusion left in its wake, the Cold War's end has greatly increased both American security and its latitude to pursue neglected goals--advancing its economic interests, for one, or protecting the global environment. In a different sense it may be equally short-sighted to accept as inevitable the growing share of births that come outside of marriage.

In his classic book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," Thomas S. Kuhn notes that scientists often resist evidence that threatens a paradigm by which they have explained events. It is only when they accept the failure of the old rules that they can begin to construct the new. In that sense, scientific revolutions parallel political revolutions: In both instances, he writes, "the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite."

That may be as good an explanation as any of the state in which America now finds itself. We feel a widespread sense of malfunction, with the components of our national identity and purpose evolving. Today, many Americans would still rather recapture the old than build the new--as the debates about NAFTA and immigration show. Yet, as in the laboratory, our dominant assumptions must visibly fail before new approaches will flourish. Take one example: the growing anxiety about births to unmarried mothers makes it likely that in the next several years we will test the most radical ideas of left and right--from intensive mentoring and guaranteed employment for young people who graduate from high school without having children, to denying welfare benefits to women who give birth outside of marriage.

Once the monolith of accepted wisdom cracks, there is no damming the flow of new ideas. Somewhere on the Internet, a young Californian born in Vietnam or Pakistan may be watering the seed that could germinate into the next Microsoft or Apple. Uncertainty is the price we pay for a society open enough to welcome him, and nurture his innovation. Uncertainty is the price of renewal.

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