AS Americans gather for their traditional celebrations this Fourth of July, much of their patriotic energy will be directed toward the recent victory in the Gulf. That was a rebuke to aggression, and worth remembering. But it was hardly the central geopolitical drama in this 215th year since independence was declared by a congress of former British subjects meeting in Philadelphia.The larger struggle, of which US independence is an enduring beacon, is a worldwide movement of people toward political and economic self-government, marked by the rule of law and by a respect for the rights of individuals. This struggle has never been more encompassing - and at the same time it has rarely faced greater obstacles. The Slovenes and Croats of Yugoslavia have declared their independence from what they consider an oppressive union with neighboring Slavic republics. This move toward self-determination, however, runs head-on into Europe's, and Washington's, interest in maintaining some semblance of stability in a potentially volatile region. "Balkanization" still sends shivers up the backs of diplomats. To the north, the tiny Baltic states continue to shake the union forged by Lenin and Stalin. Kremlin hard-liners might like to crack down, but last week's brief assault on Vilnius's central telephone exchange brought denials and confusion in Moscow. "Who's in charge here?" seems the perennial question in the huge Soviet conglomerate where a new democratic party is preparing to challenge the Communists. The Kurds of Iraq try to wrangle a pact with Saddam Hussein that will assure not only their autonomy, but democratic rights for all Iraqis. And in the least reformist corners of Africa - places like Togo and the Congo - voices of protest against oppression are at last heard. On Africa's southern tip, blacks and whites trek toward a system of government that represents all citizens. Poland's Lech Walesa - a virtual icon of democracy in the West, if not always at home - just lost a test of political strength with parliament over which system of representation to adopt: proportional, favored by Mr. Walesa as a way of strengthening new parties and rooting out the communists, or single-member districts, which encourage independent candidates. In Nicaragua, Violeta Chamorro's coalition is fragmenting as a once pliant national assembly shows some independence. India, in some ways a mature democracy nearly a half-century after independence, finds itself pulled and strained by political violence, sectarian divisiveness, and separatism. It could all make the practice of democracy in the United States seem rather settled. But it isn't. The struggle against abuses of governmental power goes on here as elsewhere. And the demand, here as elsewhere, is for citizens who grasp both the public good and the inalienable rights of individuals. America's role as beacon has never been more critical.