THE NEW order has brought a new vocabulary. One of the principal words is "declinist." That's somebody who thinks the vainglorious days of "We're Number One" are over for Uncle Sam.

The new order began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. That's when Eastern Europe realized that Mikhail Gorbachev had meant every word of his remarkable anti-force, anit-war speech to the United Nations in 1988, a speech that sounded utopian at the time. And Europe's wonderful dawning, the corollary went, meant evening for American domination. A resurgent Germany would own Europe; we would be reduced to a supporting role. We would have to share the rest of Asia with China and Japan.

But along came the Persian Gulf crisis, which has swamped everything. And it is being used by both pro- and anti-declinists as proof of their differing contentions. An Italian daily, La Repubblica, recently thrashed Washington Post columnist and political writer David Broder for writing in September that Washington is no longer the center of the universe.

Only the president of the United States, the newspaper said in its lead story on page one, could have rallied world opinion against Saddam Hussein, could have mobilized the troops for Operation Desert Shield. America is still running the world, said La Repubblica, and thank God.

At a press conference here this last week, several foreign-policy experts experts tried to reach a conclusion -- and failed. They were gathered to launch a book called "Sea-Changes," a collection of essays which, as the title suggests, is based on the proposition that it's a new world out there.

But Robert Tucker, a professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins, said he couldn't figure out if the Gulf crisis was "the last act of an old drama or the first act of a new one."

Ronald Steel, the biographer of Walter Lippmann, said that superpowers do not go around the world with a tin cup -- a reference to a recent money-raising campaign undertaken by Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady.

But Miles Kahler, of the University of California at San Diego, said he thought it was perfectly appropriate for us, in our new multilateralist role, to seek financial help from our allies. Tucker, however, thought that despite the remarkable and significant United Nations endorsement of our action, we were being essentially as unilateral as before.

Our absorption in the Gulf has, of course, drained off attention and resources from the struggling new countries that have just emerged from the long totalitarian night and are trying to change their economies, their institutions and even their people. What may affect them more than the Gulf crisis is West Germany's total and expensive preoccupation with playing Professor Higgins to its ragamuffin relation from the East.

Germany was the only European country with the wherewithal to support weak new democracies. But its largest disbursement was $8 billion to the Soviets for "relocation" of Soviet soldiers heading back home. It was widely interpreted as a bribe to purchase Soviet acquiescence in unification. The country that lost 27 million people to the Nazi onslaught required some persuasion. But that was a one-time deal. And now the business of westernizing the East, with its rusting factories and non-functioning economy, will drain off even Berlin's considerable funds. The cost of becoming one nation could be a trillion dollars.

Now the former satellites can look only to us, and we have to pass with averted eyes. The evolution of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania will have to be accomplished with no more help from us than volunteers or businessmen can provide.

If it's a different world, Saddam Hussein has inadvertently reminded us how little we have changed. His bold invasion of Kuwait is a throwback to the bad old days and brings back specters of gas lines. But we learned nothing from the inconveniences and deprivations of 1973 and 1979. We love gasoline, we love automobiles. We don't want to change. We would rather fight than switch.

In this attitude, we are not discouraged by our government. Has anyone heard George Bush talk about conservation? Has anyone in the Department of Energy suggested an all-out drive to find alternate sources of energy so that we are not dependent on the world's most volatile area for fuel to run our cars and our industry.

Has anyone heard a suggestion that we try to convert to natural gas or methanol? Have we heard any calls for stepped-up research on solar energy?

No. Walls can fall, the "Ode to Joy" can be heard at the Brandenburg Gate, but we have sent 150,000 Americans to the Saudi desert so that we will not have to change our ways. Talk about heads in the sand! Talk about decline!

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.