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World: As Millennium Ends, Its Main Features Continue

  • Jan de Weydenthal

The changes that have affected the planet over the last thousand years have been profound. In this feature marking the turn of the millennium, RFE/RL correspondent Jan de Weydenthal ponders three developments that have changed life around the globe.

Prague, 3 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A millennium is drawing to a close but the past is certain to continue casting its shadow well into the future, influencing the way we behave and think.

That is why it is useful perhaps at this time to ponder those aspects or elements of history that may have particularly strongly influenced world development during the last thousand years.

At the very least, this may give an idea of what could shape our conduct in the decades or even centuries to come.

It is, clearly, not an easy task. There are certain to be many diverging views on what was historically important -- on what had a lasting impact on the world.

With this in mind, it is proper to avoid selecting particular events or focus on specific civilizations or geographical areas, concentrating instead on large-scale global processes that appear to have affected all societies, all continents and all cultures.

There are three separate but related developments that can stand as examples of defining elements over the last one thousand years of human history. General in nature, these features set the millennium just ending apart from the earlier ones, although their roots might have appeared in past history as well.

First, this millennium has seen a period of unprecedented expansion of enlightenment. Not to be confused with a narrowly defined period of the European cultural history, this "millennial enlightenment" has concerned both the global explosion of cultural experiences -- different kinds of arts -- and a true and massive scientific revolution. Both these processes have been universal.

Marking a passage from general ignorance to widely spread education and knowledge, the global expansion of enlightenment --admittedly in differing intensity and scope in separate areas and specific times -- affected all aspects of life on our planet.

The general enlightenment has brought a change in the way we act, think and perceive ourselves and the world. It has made us qualitatively different from our ancestors living in other millennia.

Second, this millennium has been one of true globalization. For the first time in human history our planet -- the home of many different races and civilizations -- has been "reduced" to a single world.

The process was sparked by geographical discoveries, but had been rooted in the very change in the understanding of our place in the larger solar and planetary system.

In time we have found that despite many different characteristics, we tend to share common problems and strive to achieve similar goals.

Third, this millennium has featured the emergence of a "nation-state."

The identification of a "nation" -- basically a cultural and psycho-social phenomenon -- with a "state" -- a political and institutional entity -- came relatively late in millennial history, about the 16th century. But it gave a new meaning to the entire period.

The very concept of a nation-state has provided many societies with a definition of identity, but also brought a great deal of tragedy through recurrent wars.

While it put an end to a "divine" justification for power and authority -- monarchy and theocracy -- that had previously shaped politics, it also brought to the surface the pervasive influence of nationalism that eventually came to influence recent, and current, world developments.

The world-wide processes of "enlightenment" and "globalization" are certain to continue in the next millennium. There is, indeed, a very strong likelihood that they will be further augmented and solidified.

Nationalism is also likely to be with us for some time, although there have recently emerged signs that a different basis of social identity -- such as universally recognized human rights -- could develop through multinational integrative moves. But the prospect of such changes is still in a distant and far from certain future.