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As first Truly global century draws to a close, Common experiences link much of mankind

Torrent of innovation webs together human race; coming next: www.earth. But... was Dickens right?

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The hero status of Nelson Mandela, the wide appeal of Louie Armstrong, Jesse Owens, Arthur Ashe, Stevie Wonder, Jessye Norman, and Michael Jordan, as well as the globally top-rated TV shows of Bill Cosby provided role models galore.

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The once (and future) Asian economic miracle effectively undermined another pervasive racism. But the goal of color/ethnic blindness still lay uphill, as anti-Muslim stereotypes replaced earlier forms of antisemitism. Europe and America wrestled with immigration pressures that fueled new and old prejudices.

Nevertheless, democracy spread. So did women's rights, literacy, high-yield farming, family planning, and the information explosion. But so, also, did cutting of rainforests, spreading of deserts, drying of the Aral Sea and other waterways, inching up of ocean levels, and inefficient burning of fossil fuels. (The last phenomenon worriedly watched, as researchers sought evidence of whether it was the main cause of climate and sea level change.)

Urge to merge ... nations

Nations experimented with new institutions for economic and political cooperation. Western Europe amalgamated in the wake of its second lethal world war. The European Union, a looser, less homogenized version of a united states, invited its east European siblings to join after the long cold war against the last big empire - Stalin's - ended.

Other, looser conglomerating took place even as empires faded and alliances shifted. Regional trade groups in North America, the big states of South America, and Pacific Asia joined the European trade area as zones of reduced commercial barriers. Some economists feared zone trade wars between the Western Hemisphere, Europe, and Asia. But cooperation appeared to be gaining ground.

The big wars, big depression, and genocidal outbreaks of the century spawned a series of earnest but mostly toothless world and regional political bodies, plus courts, trade referees, peacekeeping forces, election monitors, and ordinary traffic light-style global machinery.

Cranking world machinery

The post-World War I League of Nations didn't last, so nations went back to the drawing board to create the United Nations, revive a sometimes useful but scarcely visible World Court, vote a score of peacekeeping experiments, and set up ad hoc war crimes tribunals. Peacekeeping worked when the warring parties were exhausted or big powers twisted their arms. But preventing wars before they started was still an imperfect art.

Several rounds of reducing trade barriers led to a permanent World Trade Organization to provide a home for future bargaining and a referee for disputes. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, plus regional development banks attempted to perform globally some of the business cycle taming and development funding that national banks did within countries.

Much of that machinery was born out of lessons from the Great Depression. That global tragedy, sandwiched between world wars, hammered home the costs of tit-for-tat trade protectionism, rigid central banks, rampant deflation, and the panicky tightening of credit. Franklin Roosevelt described the overall cause in his famous "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" speech in 1933.

The post-World War II spate of institution-building did much to make the world more orderly. (Test yourself on this selection of acronyms: UN, IMF, UNHCR, UNICEF, NATO, OAS, CIS, OAU, ASEAN, OECD, FAO, IAEA, UPU, WHO, EU, NAFTA, OPEC.)* But it stopped short of developing an international antitrust system or other machinery to help keep the playing field level for competing global businesses and workers.

Little noticed UN-spawned agencies helped coordinate global air traffic safety, satellite communications, postal systems, weather reporting, health programs, nuclear surveillance, child welfare, environment monitoring, and preservation of historic monuments.

Frozen peas and cell phones