THE NEWS from the frontier of freedom is good. Freedom House of New York has been measuring, and honing its measurements, for 35 years, and it reports that for the first time liberal democracies now outnumber other political systems in the world. In 1990 the number of countries classified as free and the numbers of people living in them both rose above 50 percent. While the bold changes in the former Soviet bloc have gotten most of the attention, stirrings are evident in the developing countries, with Africa, for instance, undergoing "a sweep of multipartyism that represents the most significant phenomenon since decolonization three decades ago." This is not to dismiss the enormous obstacles strewn on the road to functional democracies, Freedom House warns. Many of these democracies are still in an embryonic, fragile or weakly institutionalized form. But the achievement is there to be seen.

A sobering trend, however, coexists with this shining one -- a "nationalist revival" in multi-ethnic nations. Movements for independence and secession may generate forces that overwhelm the democratic content or promise of these movements. In the Soviet Union and elsewhere, the devices of liberal democracy -- free speech and free association, free elections -- are sometimes being put to purposes that are not always strictly democratic. Ethnic, tribal and ideological differences are emerging so sharply as to prompt the central authorities -- and sometimes the local authorities -- to use non-democratic means in order to preserve national unity or to ensure the ascendancy of majorities over minorities and, in occasional cases, of minorities over majorities.

These problems have a common source. In the 1980s many different kinds of societies started acting on the premise that democratic values are not the exclusive property of one set of nations with a special shared past; rather, these values have a universal validity founded on the nature of man. This leaves many countries struggling to put into place a democratic system which has only shallow roots in that specific place's past. It puts on the more settled democracies an obligation to share their experience in decentralization, authentic federalism and local self-rule. These are the political tools with which to harness ethnic and national strains to democratic practice. This is the challenge of global democracy in the '90s.