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Western Press Review: Commentary Looks At Old Times, New Times

  • Don Hill

Prague, 31 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Readers of the German, British, and U.S. press will find a near consensus among commentators that the topic of the day starts with the calendar -- the year, decade, century or millennium just past, or the one beginning. The agreement ends there. There are as many perspectives on the topic of the day as there are commentators.

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Everybody needs and would benefit from a sturdy, effective United Nations

International affairs columnist Flora Lewis writes from Paris in the International Herald Tribune that the world needs a stronger United Nations. As she puts it: "The United States finally deigned to pay up enough of its debts to assure that it will not lose the right to vote in the United Nations in the coming year. It is hardly a sign of the world leadership, the global responsibility, the indispensability that American leaders like to assert. In the last years of the century, it has become increasingly evident how much everybody needs and would benefit from a sturdy, effective United Nations."

NEW YORK TIMES: The concluding day of the 20th century evokes the desire to celebrate our hope for a peaceful and healing future

The New York Times focuses an editorial on the day's symbolism. In the editorial's words: "The concluding day of the 20th century and therefore of the second millennium -- that event so freighted with various meanings by historians, politicians, fictionists and doomsaying preachers -- is upon us. With allowances for the dateline, it will fall everywhere with equal finality, evoking all around the world the same feelings of solemnity for humanity's catalog of travails and triumphs, and stirring in every corner of our common planet the desire to celebrate our hope for a peaceful and healing future. Those aspirations will stir with an equal inexorability in quiet villages on far continents and in the digital glitter of Times Square."

TIMES: The task of the next century will be to use knowledge well

Across the ocean in London, the other famous The Times newspaper turns its editorial eyeglass on scientific advances that seem to outstrip ethical preparedness. The dangers are real, says The Times, but they always have been and science must march on. The editorial says this: "Evolution is blind, but man is purposive. Science begins by seeking explanations, but ends by using them as a means of mastering nature. Now that we understand how genes are made, and how they function -- an advance as splendid as Darwin's own -- the task of the next century will be to use that knowledge well. The first steps have been hesitant, and have provided a reminder of how easily alarmed people become at manipulations that seem to threaten the sanctity of life. Gene therapy has proved a disappointment -- it has even, sadly, claimed its first victim -- while the genetic modification of crops has generated a furor to match that which greeted The Origin of Species."

The newspaper concludes with these words: "Since the scientific revolution began, there have been people ready to argue that, agreeable as it has been so far, it is now time it stopped. Fortunately, those voices have always been in a minority. For the picture it has drawn of nature has a splendor and a compass that no pre-scientific myth can match. The fact that truth derives from experiment not from authority, and that scientific knowledge should be applied, in Francis Bacon's words, 'for the Glory of God and the relief of man's estate,' inspired the Enlightenment and should inspire us still."

WASHINGTON POST: Every once in a while, a single person arises without whom everything would be different

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer plays a hand at what he calls the "parlor game" of identifying the man of the Century. The U.S. Time Magazine got it wrong when it named Albert Einstein, Krauthammer says. The true man of the century, he says, has no close competition. It's Winston Churchill, British prime minister during World War II.

Here is Krauthammer defense of his thesis: "Einstein was certainly the best mind of the century (and he also) had a deeply humane and philosophical soul. I would nominate him as most admirable man of the century. But most important? If Einstein hadn't lived, the ideas he produced might have been delayed. But they would certainly have arisen without him."

Krauthammer continues his argument: "Take away Churchill in 1940, on the other hand, and Britain would have settled with Hitler -- or worse. Nazism would have prevailed. Hitler would have achieved what no other tyrant, not even Napoleon, had ever achieved: mastery of Europe. Civilization would have descended into a darkness the likes of which it had never known. The great movements that underlie history -- the development of science, industry, culture, social and political structures -- are undeniably powerful, almost determinant. Yet every once in a while, a single person arises without whom everything would be different. Such a man was Churchill."

DIE WELT: The decade of the Serbs ends with a sad triumph for Slobodan Milosevic

The German newspaper Die Welt's commentator Katja Ridderbusch calls the 10 years just past the "Decade of the Serbs." She makes it evident that the title is intended realistically and is no accolade. Ridderbusch: "Belgrade has waged four wars in this decade and lost all of them. Hundreds of thousands of people have been butchered or driven out. What remains is a devastated country and a brutalized, deeply traumatized society."

The writer adds this: "The decade of the Serbs opened with the end of an illusion that the fragile artificial construction of the Tito state was capable of welding together, long term and in peace, a region which has been for centuries divided along economic, religious and ethnic lines. The decade ended with a bloody return of the demons of history which triumphed in new conflicts and - ultimately - in a grisly finale in Kosovo, the mythical cradle of Serbia in the Middle Ages. The decade of the Serbs is above all indelibly linked with one man -- Slobodan Milosevic. It was he who said in a speech to Kosovo Serbs on Kosovo Polje early in 1987: 'No one will dare to beat you,' and thus gave the starting signal for the nationalist drums to roll in the Balkans."

The writer's closing words: "(U.S. General Wesley Clark relativized the situation not long ago in a comment on the war aims he had himself set. He said, resignedly: 'Milosevic is the only dictator in history who increased his power by allowing his country to be broken up.' The decade of the Serbs -- it ends with a paradox, with a sad triumph for Slobodan Milosevic."

DIE WELT: Every people gets the currency they deserve

Eleven members of the European Union gave birth a year ago to a new currency, the euro. Joerg Eigendorf, another Die Welt commentator, says the euro is sending a message to the EU peoples that they need to open up to economic reform, social ideas, and technological process. In Eigendorf's words: "It was as if the euro wanted once more (yesterday) to emphasize its weak performance throughout the year: it came perilously close to the foreign-exchange market sound barrier. At midday, it was within half a pfennig of being worth less than the dollar."

The lesson? the writer puts it this way: "Only if the majority of people in this country show themselves to technical advances, open themselves to new ideas and do not oppose reform, only then will euro zone countries be able to enjoy lasting higher levels of investment. There is a proverb which says that every people gets the politicians they deserve. The same applies to a currency."