Well, it was nice while it lasted. The detente brought on by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power and the mostly peaceful revolution that subsequently spread through Eastern Europe provided us with a brief, shining hour. We seemed to be making prog-ress toward a new world order.

Members of the Bush administration still talk fervently about the new world order. But they still talk fervently about balancing the budget, too.There are turbulent forces at work, besides those in the Persian Gulf, that pose grave threats.

We are entering an era in which some of the most basic historic processes of the past 200 years may be reversed.

It is understandable that the world's attention was riveted when the Berlin Wall was breached. However, reunified Germany has a population of about 79 million. Uttar Pradesh, in a smaller area, has a population of more than 133 million.

But where is Uttar Pradesh? And how often has it been mentioned in the endless talk of the new world order? Uttar Pradesh is a state in India. And India, along with a significant number of other countries, is undergoing changes quite the opposite of what took place in Germany.

In the past two centuries, large nation-states came together by a variety of means. Today the world is at the threshold of an era marked by the stormy disintegration of a number of those large states.

India, a nation of more than 850 million people, is racked by ethnic and religious turmoil. The recent struggles between Hindus and Muslims over a disputed religious site only touch on the deep divisions.

Movements demanding greater autonomy or outright independence are springing up throughout India. These movements, fueled by ethnic, historical, religious, regional and linguistic factors, create a chain reaction as they affect life, not only in the area in which they originate, but also in neighboring states and even other countries.

Any number of well-armed and contentious demagogues could rise to power. A spiraling crisis from the fragmentation of India would be augmented by the country's extensive poverty and its population explosion. (At its present rate of growth, the population of India will double in 33 years.)

Recent events in Lithuania underscore the fact that the Soviet Union is another large state with ever more urgent confrontations, an outgrowth of the republics' struggle for greater autonomy or independence.

The chances for successful independence for the Baltic republics are enhanced by factors that include favorable geography and extensive ties with the West.

Though many other Soviet republics do not have similar advantages, most Western observers tend to applaud all local movements as being heartening trends toward greater freedom.

However, our empathic and often simplistic feelings may be sobered very quickly if central authority is swept away and power is transferred to a series of unyielding local rulers.

Consider the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. In recent years there has been bloodletting between the two groups. Both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis say the intervening central authorities of the Soviet Union have favored the other side.

But what happens if the Soviet Union breaks up, leaving no third party with an interest in separating the combatants?

Power-seekers throughout the world condemn central authority. After all, even in the United States, hasn't every successful presidential candidate in recent history run for office on the claim that he is out to change the way the fools in Washington conduct business?

Americans tend to view the struggle for political independence from the perspective of our nation's break from England.

Americans think of independence as being synonymous with freedom, opportunity and prosperity. Thomas Jefferson was even nice enough to toss in the idea that the pursuit of happiness was part of the bargain.

But to view the independence movements simmering in many regions today from the perspective of the American experience is naive and even dangerous. If, for instance, Armenia were to achieve independence, it would immediately become a small, landlocked state surrounded by hostile neighbors.

Large arsenals combined with bitter ethnic feuds or religious fanaticism provide ingredients for tragedy. The problems are deep-rooted and defy simple solutions.

The trend toward decentralization could result in a tragic irony. As the threat of a brief and cataclysmic superpower confrontation subsides, we may well head into an era of deadly struggles - something like Lebanon in the past 15 years - but over a much wider area.

There may be many factions capable of inflicting great damage on their adversaries, but none able to achieve ultimate victory.

The much-heralded new world order could provide us with a world at war without a world war.

(Richard K. Nolan is a free-lance writer who lives in Manchester, Conn.)